Today’s kids are inundated with screens. Wherever they turn there are computers, phones or tablets. Reducing screen time is the typical response from parents when media exposure seems to get out of hand, but what should we do as screens become increasingly unavoidable? Researchers are defining this new world our kids live in, while giving parents the information they need to navigate this new age.
In a paper published in Health Education & Behavior, Dina Borzekowski, a research professor of behavioral and community health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, introduces a concept related to media use called “constancy.” Constancy is used to describe kids’ pervasive access to digital technology, as most kids are within arms’ reach of some device at all times. Borzekowski, who has focused her past work on how media can boost child development in lower income countries, is now looking into how this new age of constant media affects children and adolescents in places like the United States where media access is most prevalent.
Borzekowski offers five thoughts to help families lessen the stress of endless media access:
Acknowledge the constant media presence
As parents, we’re continually adjusting to the new world our kids are growing up in. Constant media presence is one more part of this changing landscape that we need to understand and embrace, because it’s not going anywhere. Borzekowski urges parents to be realistic about how impractical it is to eliminate screens from a child’s life, as many of us attempt to do when doling out a punishment or trying to remove distractions. “It’s like getting rid of electricity or refrigeration in today’s world,” she explains. “This is absurd to us and way more absurd to a 14-year-old.”
Constancy’s effects are wide-reaching and profound
Anything that we are constantly exposed to makes a serious impression on our daily lives. The presence of media all day every day can profoundly affect development in ways we might not have experienced in our own childhoods, and may result in our kids becoming independent more slowly than we did. Our kids may always have driving directions and cooking instructions at their fingertips, but they may have a more difficult time with anything that can’t be done with the help of technology.
Focus on the kid, not their phone
Not every issue that happens with the phone is about the phone, and taking it away isn’t always the answer. Borzekowski says that much of what is happening within a child’s phone and social media world is likely happening face to face as well, and we need to handle social and emotional issues more holistically. Be sure you’re addressing the root of any problems, because simply removing the phone is unlikely to resolve whatever situation caused the issue in the first place.
The message matters more than the medium
Regardless of what device they’re using, kids can get to the content they seek one way or another. While it used to be thought that how a message was delivered was just as important as the message itself, that’s no longer the case in a world where we can access the same content, like a video or meme, from an endless array of sources.
These days it’s not about the phone or the tablet, it’s about what they’re watching on it—again, the screen isn’t necessarily the “bad guy” when it comes to what kids read, see, or say. While reducing access might be helpful in some cases, it’s important to discuss and address troubling content or interactions, since we’re unlikely to be able to eliminate their access completely for the long term.
Guide children toward beneficial uses
For all of the pitfalls of media constancy, there are also endless benefits. Kids can use it for homework help, connecting with far-away relatives, and gaining knowledge beyond what their parents can teach. Embrace all the good that media has to offer.
Love them or not, screens are here to stay. As parents our job is to adapt, and guide kids within this new reality.