Managing Screen Time in a Digital World

By Meagan Mesirow, Pilgrim Social Worker

Kids today spend more and more time with their digital devices. Their creative, relaxation, and social lives revolve around screens – much like adults. For this reason, a huge part of my Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum involves discussions about managing screen time, digital citizenship, and safety.

4th graders using their online resources during class
4th graders using their online resources during class

Screen Time

Common Sense Research studies identify four main categories of screen time:

  • Passive: mindlessly watching videos or shows, scrolling, vegging out
  • Interactive: playing games, problem-solving
  • Communication: video-chatting, using social media 
  • Content creation: making digital art or music, coding

All of these categories (plus homework) means kids are spending a lot of time looking at their devices. And it’s not all bad!

It is unrealistic to ask kids to stay off devices since so much of their world revolves around screen time. It is important, as adults and role models, to teach them boundaries, safety, and thinking about their digital footprint. 

Each child is different, which is why I don’t have a recommendation for “screen time rules” or specific limits to sites, games, or time on devices. I would think about what you notice with your child’s behavior before and after using devices. It could also be helpful to do a “digital detox” as a family to see how screens affect your mental states. You can also inquire about the sites and content your child is exposed to online. 

During SEL, we often talk about the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) and how it is the last part of your brain to develop. This is not a bad thing! It means that kids take risks and make mistakes, but it also means they learn from their mistakes, try new things, and explore new ideas. When adults have rules or expectations for kids, it is to help teach them boundaries and keep them safe while they are at a stage where they might act more impulsive. While they might not love the boundaries or rules monitoring their digital lives, it is good to discuss with them the reasoning behind your family’s views on screen time.  

It is also important to listen to their perspectives. Parents around the world are figuring out how to navigate the digital world, keep kids safe, and encourage healthy development. 

When exploring the idea of attention spans with 7th and 8th grade, we discovered that attention spans haven’t changed since the invention of technology and social media (BBC News). The students acknowledged difficulties with tempting distractions like video games, social media, and YouTube. Most were open and interested in learning strategies to help them manage these difficulties. I believe that part of living in today’s world is learning to manage tempting distractions and the work you would like to achieve. Learning about time management, task motivation, and other executive functioning skills will help kids in the long run. They will likely always have a device in their pocket or at their desk as they continue through their school careers and eventually get jobs. 

Digital Citizenship and Safety

With kids spending so much time on screens, online, and becoming more tech savvy than many adults, parents often worry about keeping their child safe.

I teach students a term called “digital tattoo”, or “digital footprint”. This concept helps explain that everything they do online is there forever- in some server or because somebody else took a screenshot of something they posted or messaged.  

The internet is a giant vortex of information. It takes the information and treats each bit of data like a piece of a puzzle. Your puzzle is your digital tattoo. It is made up of accounts you create, things you search, games you play, social media activity, your likes and comments, the pictures and posts you share, the music you stream and download, the videos you watch, the apps you purchase, the places your GPS takes you, and public records (your birth certificate, address, phone number etc.).

Having a digital tattoo/footprint is not necessarily harmful or unsafe, but the way we use the internet can lead to problems when we make uninformed or poor decisions. It is virtually impossible to hide your identity if you are going to use the internet. Personal information is going to be on the web. Internet safety isn’t about trying to hide all of your personal information, it’s about avoiding drawing the wrong kind of attention and remembering that your actions have consequences, even if they are online. 

To explain this concept without alarming our students, I usually tell the kids to imagine the trillions of bits of information traveling through the web at once. You don’t want to be standing on a mountain waving a flag and drawing attention to yourself by acting inappropriately. Letting people know details about your life could put you in danger or you could hurt someone else through your actions online. 

I encourage all parents to talk to their kids about what they are doing online and to monitor their activity to make sure they are being safe, making good choices, and managing their screen time appropriately.  Everyone is different, but all kids need support from their families and schools to navigate their digital lives.

5th grader joking when asked to pose for a photo about internet safety 🙂 

Additional Resources!

The following websites have resources that you might find helpful in creating an Acceptable Internet Use Contract with your kids. 

Common Sense Media: Learn about apps, games, social media sites, videos, and more. This site rates the content with an explanation about the rating. The site also has articles about new trends in internet use and how parents can help kids navigate different issues. 

Tech Savvy User’s Guide to the Digital World by Lori Getz: This book can help you build an Acceptable Use Policy for your household. Lori Getz’s website also has links to articles, resources, and a contract you can edit for your own family. 

Internet Matters: This site has information about issues on the internet, advice, and resources specific to the age of your child.