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Does Your Family Need a Digital Detox?

Use the fresh start of a new year to analyze your tech habits and implement healthy boundaries.

In the fall of 2021, Instagram and Facebook were down and unusable for six hours.The overarching reaction that I, along with many others witnessed, was a sense of relief. Being disconnected from those apps forced many parents and their kids to reevaluate how they spent their time—and that was just one day.

This got me thinking about the complex relationship many of us have with technology and all the pros and cons that come with it. Add in the pressure of raising kind, smart, and happy kids, and the topic of digital use can feel overwhelming. Plus, tech use has become even more prevalent in the last year as many schools have shifted to utilizing it in classrooms.

According to a study published in the Child Indicators Research journal, time spent on tech use rose 32 percent among two to five-year-olds and 23 percent among six to 11-year-olds between 1997 and 2016. Research published in the Youth and Society journal also suggests that even in 2014, kids spent 33 hours per week using digital technology outside of school.

“There is a correlation between use of social media, the more hours online, and the more social media accounts you have, and increased levels of anxiety; however, we don’t clearly understand the direction of the relationship,” says Dr. Jenna Glover, a clinical youth psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “Specifically, we don’t know if increased use of social media results in increased anxiety or if people with higher levels of anxiety are more likely to spend more time on social media and have more social media accounts.”

While technology and media use is unavoidable as a whole, there are still ways you can implement mindful practices in your home. Whether you and your family want to cut back on digital use, find ideas for creating boundaries, or spark conversation on what is and isn’t appropriate, consider this your guide to getting started.

Questions To Ask Your Child About Tech

Is your teen using social media? Ask them these questions—without judgement—to gauge their relationship with apps.

· How do you feel after you look at your social media feeds? Happy, anxious, jealous?
· Are you using social media to connect, create, or consume?
· Why do you enjoy following x, y, and z accounts?
· Are there any accounts that you feel you should unfollow?
· How do you think the content you share on social media makes other people feel?

Set a Strong Example for Your Kids

One thing most parents will agree on: Kids watch and pick up on much of what you do. Setting a healthy example of tech use starts with you. Reflect on your own digital use by asking yourself these questions: What does the way you use social media and your free time tell your kids? And, what do your kids learn by watching your tech habits?

Andrea Davis, co-founder of Better Screen Time, a resource for parents who strive to achieve a healthy tech/life balance, developed an online course called, “Creating a Tech-Healthy Family.” The first portion of the course is focused on helping parents strengthen their own tech boundaries. Davis is a mom of five; her oldest child is 17 and her youngest is seven. “I noticed such a big shift (in tech use) even between my first kid and my last kid. I could very much see the difference between how much I was distracted as a parent,” she explains.

For many parents, the lines between work and home have become increasingly blurred. Whether you work from home or commute to an office, it’s likely that you have emails, Slack notifications, and text messages rolling in well after business hours. With such easy access to these tools, it can be hard to truly shut things off and focus on spending time with your kids.

Beyond work, Davis points out that there’s no real cutoff time with technology today. “When I was growing up in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, we had very clear cutoff times with technology. Pre-internet, you knew what time your favorite television show was on, you got ready for it, you watched it, and then it was done. You’d turn the TV off and then go outside, help make dinner, or do your chores,” she reminisces. Those natural boundaries aren’t there for us anymore, so we have to make them for our families.

By showing your kids that you have set time limits and a dedication to screen-free activities, they’ll learn that balance is the key. They also might be more understanding of boundaries if you show them that the same rules apply to you. “If I’m expecting something from my kids, then I need to be willing to live by those same standards,” Davis says.

What Screen Limits Should I Have in Place?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following screen time limits for kids:

If you don’t want to keep a daily log, Glover says a good rule of thumb is to ensure that screen time isn’t taking away from essential activities. “If kids are getting recommended hours of sleep, eating consistently, spending time with friends, engaging in physical activity, and completing homework, then screen time doesn’t really matter,” she says. “If any of these areas are not consistently happening, then screen time should be evaluated and limited to ensure that these foundational daily activities are being met.”

Remember That There’s More to Life Than Tech

One rule that Davis has implemented in her own home is no devices are allowed in bedrooms or bathrooms. “I have better conversations with my spouse at night because I’m not scrolling through Instagram or trying to get a work project done at midnight.” She says that the relationships in her family have become stronger because of simple rules like this.

Davis’s two teenage daughters, who are 17 and 14, follow the same rule of having no tech in their rooms. “I’ll hear them at 11 o’clock at night just giggling and having their regular girl talk,” she says. “I think about what would have happened if I never set that boundary and they took their school iPad or any device into the bedroom. I don’t think those conversations would be happening and that relationship would look very different.” This is just one of the long-term implications of how we use screens—they can determine the relationships we have later in life.

For both parents and kids, there can be a sense of missing out when you spend less time on social media. The same goes for TV—that new show everyone is bingeing might be on your must-watch list, but is that really the way you want to spend your time? After a long day of tantrums, homework help, and battles over dinner, that might be exactly what you need (and that’s OK!), but the truth is, there’s so much more happening outside of screens that you could be missing out on.

“If I’m too attached to my phone, then I’m going to miss those moments with my kids,” Davis explains. One hack she recommends: Think about how you’re using tech rather than feeling like you can’t or shouldn’t use it at all. Become comfortable with saying “this work email can wait” or “I don’t need to see what my former high school soccer teammate is posting about,” and think hard about where you want to be spending most of your time.

Get your kids involved by asking them to think about how they’re using technology as well. You can ask them if they’d like to go to the park, make a craft, or bake something instead of watching a show or playing video games.

10 Habits That Create Healthier Tech Use

  1. Create one central charging station in your home. This wrangles all devices into one spot at the end of screen time and (hopefully) limits temptations.
  2. Enforce a “no tech in bedrooms or bathrooms” rule.
  3. Purchase a Wi-Fi router that automatically shuts off at a set time each night. This will help your family disconnect from tech before going to bed.
  4. Unfollow accounts that don’t bring you joy. If your kids are on social media, encourage them to do the same.
  5. Enlist dedicated reading, journaling,
    or storytelling times before bed.
  6. Use an old school alarm clock rather than the clock on your phone. This way you aren’t looking at screens first thing in the morning.
  7. Use a paper planner and calendar rather than digital.
  8. Put your phone in a drawer or in another room when you’re trying to focus on a task or be more present with your kids.
  9. Go on family walks and leave all of your devices at home. If safety is a concern, one parent can bring a cell phone and leave it on airplane mode.
  10. Put all other devices (laptops, phones, tablets) away when you’re watching TV.

Get Back to the Power of Play

Tracy Foster, co-founder and executive director at Stand Together and Rethink Technology, or START, a company dedicated to helping families develop strong digital health, encourages parents to rethink the power of play. Before launching START, Foster worked in strategy consulting for one of the biggest toy companies in the world.

“The senior leadership team of the company that I was working for were all really old-guard people, and it was fascinating to hear about the intentionality that went into their product design process,” Foster says. She explains that there’s a reason why a doll might have some clothes that get fastened with a snap, some with buttons, and some with velcro. “I remember how hard it is to get some of those clothes on—it’s not to torment kids or parents, it’s actually because it’s really good for gross motor skills and fine motor skills.” Toys, historically, have been designed to help build various developmental needs—emotional, cognitive, and physical—of kids.

An additional developmental benefit comes from a parent playing with their child. However, Foster shared that focus groups done within the toy company she worked for showed that today’s parents felt lost trying to play with their kids, as was the case with a red toy barn and farm animals. “Parents didn’t actually know how to play with those toys because they were so used to being on their own phone,” she says. The company started putting labels on the side of their products to give ideas on how to use them.

Recognizing that you can’t give your child one-on-one, undivided attention all day, Foster says it’s still important to prioritize play and the connection that comes with it. “Devices can so easily creep in that, one moment you’re sitting there playing with Legos, and the next moment, you pick up your phone because you got some notification. A few minutes later, you’re now just scrolling and you forgot why you even picked up your phone, and you forgot you were even playing with Legos,” she says.

Being present with your kids is an ongoing battle, but keep in mind that your kids will pick up on all the moments you’re focusing on them. Working on living more in the moment will also help you, as a parent, unwind and de-stress from other things.

Tech Boundaries To Start With

Involving your kids in setting up the boundaries you want to follow will help them understand the “why.” Dedicate time each month to review the habits that are or aren’t serving your family, as well as how you’d like to spend your time differently. Here are some simple tech-conscious ideas to start with, but keep in mind that you should personalize these boundaries so they work for your family.

Be the change you want to see.
Glover believes that kids notice what parents do and parents need to be mindful of how often, when, and where they’re on their devices. “Even if a job requires being highly connected, parents can model taking time to disconnect and be present such as not having technology present during meal times,” she recommends.

Keep phones out of bedrooms and bathrooms.
Echoing Davis’ rule of no devices in bedrooms or bathrooms, Glover says that having tech-free zones and times in your home is an effective way to help your kids disconnect. “Research indicates that teens consistently wake up at night to check their phones, which has a detrimental impact on their sleep and subsequently harms their physical and mental health.” Keeping phones out of bedrooms is one of the easiest and most effective ways to promote overall wellness in your family, she explains.

Consider a technology detox whether it’s for one day or a week.
“Giving space for a technology detox can help children and adults be more present, reduce anxiety, and open up time to engage in activities that build resilience, such as going outside or spending time connecting to others in real life,” Glover says. Additionally, she recommends creating family challenges where everyone goes on a digital diet and reduces their intake of screen time for one week. “Be competitive to see who can cut the most digital calories and then debrief as a family regarding what the experience was like. These activities can help parents and youth recalibrate their priorities and help clarify what healthy technology use looks like.”

At the end of the day, it won’t be the Instagram stories or YouTube videos that you watched that will bring joy to your life, but rather the moments shared with the people you love most. You’ll always treasure that time you and your kids had a snowball fight or the night you and your spouse talked about your wildest dreams—even if you don’t have it on video.

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