How much time are we spending online!? The importance of digital mindfulness

By Leah Persky, PhD & CFLE • Manager of Family Life Education

Back-to-school time is in full swing and the transition to new routines and schedules can be a challenge, while simultaneously being a relief to children and their parents. Last month I wrote about the transition from summer into fall and how we can make the most of this time by tuning into our own needs as parents.

Part of being able to tune into our own needs and engage in daily care of ourselves is our ability to manage our exposure to screens and digital devices of all kinds. Many of us get weekly screen time reports from our phones. These reports give us an idea of how much time we spend online, even if we don’t really want to know! If you take a time log and add up your time spent in front of screens of all types in a normal week, what number would you come up with? How do you think you would feel about the number? One thing is for certain; we know our kids observe us directly and indirectly and take their behavior cues from us. American parents on average spend seven hours per day online (dist://ed, 2022). If we want our kids to be on their screens less, we first need to look at our own media use.

School-aged kids are spending, on average, at least four hours in front of a screen each day, not including the use of screens for educational purposes (dist://ed, 2022). This is a lot of time that we are collectively spending online; the impact that this will have on our health as a community and as individuals is still unknown. As a parent and a parent coach, I know it can be challenging to manage the screens of adults and children. There is no simple or easy fix and many of us feel overwhelmed by this task for good reason. Turning screen time into a power struggle does not usually end well for anyone.

Impact of screen time on kids

There are many reasons to be more mindful of screens – for ourselves and our kids. Exposing developing brains to near-constant exposure to the complex stimulus that screens provide can impact brain development, lessen ability to focus, increase anxiety and depression, decrease sleep quality and amount, decrease physical fitness, and expose children to content that they are not prepared to see or make sense of (Mayo Clinic, 2022). Toddlers exposed to screens on a regular basis, aside from live video calls, may also be at higher risk for experiencing developmental delays (CNN, 2023).

With certain types of media use, adults and children alike are exposing themselves to the surface level rewards that come from most social media and video games. They are designed to keep us coming back for more by allowing our brain to be seduced into waiting for the next reward that will give us that next hit of dopamine. The uncertainty that is built into these interactions keeps us coming back for more. That dopamine hit can come from then next social media “like”or that next win in your video game! Constantly exposing ourselves to such an environment can stunt the growth and health of other parts of our brain that are needed for self-control, focusing on one task at a time, and decision-making capabilities.

We know the use of digital devices is the hallmark of our time. Most of us would struggle to go a day without our devices or not be able to do our work. Screens are not inherently bad or good, rather something so ubiquitous that we may start to take them for granted and allow them to have a bigger impact on our life than we might like.

While none of this is new information, with fall being the time of new beginnings in school and the Jewish new year, it seems like an appropriate time to take stock of screen use as individuals and as a family. As we set new routines, how can we more healthily incorporate screens? Without judgement or guilt, I encourage all of us to do a quick audit on our families’ and our own screen use, and make appropriate changes for our health. Here are some questions to guide this work:

  1. What changes would you like to make and why?
  2. How do you feel after engaging in a certain activity? How might your child feel or behave after doing something online?  Observe and discuss with your family.
  3. Focus on what you are doing online in addition to time spent. Click here for more on this.
  4. If you would like to set time limits, here is a good place to get started about what appropriate time limits look like.
  5. Talk with pre-teens and teens in your life about social media and its impacts, highlighting that it is not inherently good or bad, and that communication is essential.
  6. Set aside some time each week free from digital devices – maybe that is dinner; or no phones or tv in the bedroom; on short car trips around town; or Sundays as time where the family puts their devices away for an hour or two.

Know that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to gaining control over the screens and media in your life. You know yourself and your family best, so make realistic changes that you think will work and adjust from there. We know that screens and our digital world are here to stay, so being aware and mindful of their power, both good and bad, is an essential tool for success. If you would like to make a digital mindfulness plan for your family or are concerned about the use of social media, gaming, or other online activities, please reach out. Our parent coaches and Addiction and Recovery Program Coordinator are here to help you:

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