The Surprising Reason You Should Treat Screen Time the Same Way You Treat Food

Ask a parent — any parent — how they manage technology and kids’ screen time in their household, and you’ll hear a range of philosophies. And that’s because there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

“It’s easy to focus on the risks and limitations,” Polly Palumbo, psychologist and founder of MommaData, tells SheKnows. In that regard, she says we’re in the “no sugar, no carbs” phase of expert advice on the subject.

If you think about technology in the home the same way you think about food, there’s lots of chatter about limiting screen time, setting up parental controls and otherwise finding ways to restrict the content your kids have access to — much the same way dieters and the ultra-conscious might try to limit their sugar or carbohydrate intake. But maybe there’s a better way. One that isn’t quite as exhausting and one that’s a bit more freeing.

At the Microsoft and SHE Media family tech talk in New York on Dec. 6, 2018, on which Palumbo was a panelist, it quickly became clear that finding a middle ground between overbearing and too loosey-goosey was tricky to navigate — and each panelist had an approach that worked well for their family.

“While we as parents know what a healthy, nutritional meal looks like,” Palumbo says, “we don’t know what a healthy tech meal looks like.”

The answer, in a nutshell? Everything in moderation. Here, three strategies for striking the healthy balance for technology and screen time your household is craving.

Making it a family discussion

For panelist Henry Ipince, a senior program manager of family audiences at Microsoft, moderation is found through creating a dialogue between himself, his wife and their three-year-old.

“We’re trying to create a conversation with [our daughter],” Ipince said at the event. “In the morning she gets screen time, we limit what she sees and we’ll customize it even further as the need arises. We tweak it along the way.”

Before Ipince and his wife started screen time with their daughter and had those conversations with her, they discussed it between themselves. “My wife and I spoke about this when my daughter was a baby. We dug deeper into [the recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics to avoid most forms of] screen time before the age of two,” Ipince said.

Ipince and his wife didn’t want to let the recommendation create a fear of the screen. Instead, he said, “it’s management of what that means for your life and for each family’s need.”

To put Ipince’s approach into practice in your own home, start by talking with your partner about how you want your children to interact with their screens and how much time you want them to spend in front of them. Then, engage in a similar conversation with your children. Ipince acknowledged at the event that each family is going to have a different right answer to the question of how much screen time is right.

If you aren’t sure exactly where to start with a conversation, Microsoft’s suite of products have been smartly designed to help. “The products we develop are highly customizable,” Ipince said. “We empower children as well, we have features for kids to request exceptions.” These features enable families to have a discussion on a case-by-case basis.

“Other households are going to have different family tech styles than yours,” he said. “If your kid is empowered to make decisions, that helps. At the end of the day it’s about teaching your child to use good judgement.”

Modeling healthy technology habits

For Palumbo, a mom of three teenagers, finding the healthy balance for tech habits mirrors a common refrain you hear if you spend enough time building a healthy relationship with food: everything in moderation. But the technology landscape has changed dramatically in the last five years, which means moderation is a constantly moving and evolving concept.

There are times, especially as her kids (ages 18, 16 and 13) have gotten older and more schoolwork has gone digital, that Palumbo recognizes that to be successful, her children need their screens and online connections. In those instances, technology and screen time are essential. And she also knows that technology — whether it’s gaming for her son or chatting with friends for her daughters — can be a healthy outlet for them. That’s why she has prioritized modeling healthy tech behavior in front of her children.

“My parenting has had to change to accommodate their devices,” she says. “There are limits involved, but a lot of parenting is helping them with what the appropriate behavior is.”

And when it comes to helping her children with that appropriate behavior, Palumbo tells us that for her family, it’s best done through modeling.

It’s important to understand that kids — no matter how old — are sponges. While you may not realize it, your tech habits are informing theirs. For that reason, Palumbo is keenly aware of how she is teaching her children about technology and screen time through the way she uses it in front of them.

“There’s several different pieces to having a healthy mindset,” Palumbo says. “One of them is being mindful of your own habits. This means not just modeling good habits yourself, but [also] having a healthy mindset of technology.”

When you’re demonstrating healthy technology habits — however you want to define them in your own home — it’s important to hold yourself to the same guidelines you’re asking your children to adhere to.

Using technology and screen time for good

In addition to schoolwork and socializing, Palumbo also relies on technology in the home for connecting with long-distance relatives and even for family bonding on karaoke night. “We’re known somewhat as the house of karaoke,” she says. “Even if people don’t sing, they enjoy watching… if not listening.”

Ipince agrees that technology can be good. “It can offer different tools for learning, growth [and] development. Even gaming can be very healthy. Social media is also good, inherently, for connecting to other people like you with similar interests. I fully believe tech can be very good for people and kids as long as there is that open dialogue.”

In both of their homes, Palumbo and Ipince choose to focus on the best ways to use technology — rather than condemning it and, as Ipince said at the Microsoft and SHE Media event, outlining family guidelines with a fear of the screen. While so much of the advice out there might be focused on placing limits and restrictions on technology for your kids, you also want your kids to develop a healthy relationship with it, just as Palumbo and Ipince have. And you can have fun with it in the process. No crash dieting necessary.

This post was created by SheKnows for Microsoft.

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