"Okay, maybe we weren't exactly 'having dinner together'", but we were all sitting at the table eating at the same time. That should count for something, right? I was trying to wrap up the day's emails on my netbook, hubby was checking the downward spiral of our retirement funds on his laptop, my daughter was texting friends on her phone, and my 14-year-old was slaying dragons on his PSP. We did talk--once in a while. Though grunts and the occasional curse from Dad didn't quite fit the bill for scintillating conversation. Still, we're trying."
I suppose I can give my friend Maureen two points for effort. I've been guilty myself of giving my own teenagers fast food and letting them fly to their bedrooms to chow down behind closed doors. But, the key words for all us parents are "letting them". Unlimited "screen time", in front of TVs, computers, video monitors, smart phones, etc,... can be detrimental to health, school performance, and personal development. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 2 hours of screen time for teens and tweens a day. But the recently released Kaiser report "Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds" states that most children and teens use media for over 7 hours a day, over 50 hours a week.
Sure, some of that time can be positive and productive. Connecting with chums, accessing resources for interactive education, even mastering the technology itself can help a young person learn and grow. But, there is an opportunity cost to that excessive screen time, even if the content is low-risk--lost opportunities for face to face communication, reading and studying, and healthy activities and exercise. Add the display of high-risk behaviors such as violence and substance use to the media mix, and impressionable tweens and teens become secondary victims.
So, sometimes we just have to bite the bullet and act like parenting is a verb instead of a noun. As parents, how can we help our children and teens optimize their health and minimize their screen time?
--First, advocate for moderation: No more than 2 hours of approved and monitored screen time a day.
--Enlist tweens and teens in making choices about how to use those hours--but retain final approval authority as parents.
--Review the content of programs on TV and other media before "greenlighting" them. Many prime time programs on the "Crime Broadcasting System" and its cohorts are too violent or otherwise inappropriate for unsupervised adolescent eyes. More controversial programming doesn't always have to be forbidden, however--it may provide a good opportunity for you and your teen to watch and discuss the issues raised together.
--Network sites and sites like hulu.com now allow viewing of many TV shows online--so the internet needs to be monitored as well as the TV.
--Review the ratings of video games purchased and accessed online. M means mature--over 18 only--and usually includes extreme violence that can upset or influence adolescents.
--Develop a "contract" with your teenager about which media he or she will use and the time limits involved. Recognize that many teens will fuss at new restrictions. Stand firm--your child will actually feel safer with guidelines and structure (though he or she isn't likely to admit it).
--Computers used for homework are best placed in common areas where unsupervised web surfing can be limited. Research has also shown that TVs in bedrooms, though common, do have a negative impact on school performance. Keeping screens in family areas make limits easier to enforce.
--Teens are old enough to learn about the risks of use and overuse of media as well. In addition to the health and performance issues above, teens should be advised of privacy concerns, especially with social media, the legal risks of "sexting", and safety concerns engendered by the web's anonymity. Encourage your teens to come talk to you if their online contacts become disturbing or distressing--adult help or intervention can be critical.
Being available for, and engaged with your teen or tween can help promote the healthy use of media as well as a healthier lifestyle and improved school performance. In a way, Maureen and her family had taken the first steps towards reengaging by sharing their "screen time" in a common area--though the dinner table should be a "media-free" zone. I did suggest a way to get the dinner conversation started, though, that Maureen told me she tried successfully--ask everyone to weigh in on their favorite shows!