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Want to curb screen addiction? Consider some guidelines

July 24, 2018

Worried your teens are spending too much time on their phones? Here’s how to cut down on screen time.

Rochester parent Jenny Steffes, who has two 8-year-olds and a high-schooler in her house, runs a child care business out of her home. She also owns an online health company called Thrive, which requires her to work from her phone.

“I think technology is awesome — obviously, that’s where our future is headed, so I think for many parents, including myself, it’s a love-hate relationship,” she said. “Our kids need to use it and we use it … but when they’re kids, I think it’s important to have guidelines in place.”

Those guidelines are crucial, according to Dr. Amit Sood, the chair of the Mayo Clinic Mind Body Initiative.

Overexposure to screens and the blue light they emit manifests itself in a few ways, Sood said. Adolescents who watch three or more hours of TV a day experience sleep disruption, inflammation, and are more likely to be obese due to a “slowed metabolic rate.”

There’s also an effect on mental wellness — the more time people spend in front of their screens, the higher their likelihood of developing anxiety, depression and hyperactivity, Sood said.

And all of that time can culminate in something called “screen addiction.”

9 hours daily

Only around 6 percent of people are officially “screen-addicted,” Sood said. However, according to a 2015 study, teens spend around nine hours a day consuming digital media — and that’s outside of school.

Loneliness and cognitive issues are a danger. Social media, Sood said, is like a bowl of sugar. It cuts down on the hunger for interaction, but isn’t satisfying in the way a full meal — preferably dinner with friends or family — would be.

“Attention is a zero-sum game,” he said. “If they’re attending to the technology, they’re not paying attention to the person in front of them.”

Steffes, who’s had rules for phone use in place since her oldest got his cell phone in middle school, said she doesn’t think her kids are addicted to their devices. She doesn’t get much push-back when it’s time to put them away. But she does think firm guidelines helped.

Her children put the phones away at night — that’s 10 p.m. on school days and 11 p.m. in the summer. All electronics, in fact, stay in the kitchen overnight.

“Even as adults, I feel like we can’t always ignore that buzz,” Steffes said. “It’s really hard not to have that sense of urgency that we need to check it or answer it.”

A few months ago, Steffes and a friend founded a Parenting and Technology group on Facebook, after she noticed that her teen’s phone was going off all night with messages from other students without similar restrictions. There, a relatively close web of friends can discuss the unique challenges of parenting in the age of social media (lately, Fortnite).

Tablet time

In her daycare, Steffes also sees kids as young as 3 who ask their parents about tablet time when they get home. She’s not opposed to technology use at any age (they have tablets in school now, after all), but does think limits should be enforced.

Keeping phones out of bedrooms is a good idea, Sood said, if there isn’t a safety concern to take into account.

“These are such addicting tools — toys — that they’ll wake up at 2 a.m. and look at that first,” Sood said.

Steffes’ children do have access to their phones during the school day, she said, though Verizon allows her to limit data usage to hours outside of school.

In the last couple years, she’s learned about communicating expectations, Steffes said.

“I’ve had very open and honest conversations about why we have the limits that we do … and think that family time and play time he has with his brothers is very important,” Steffes said. “That comes from the expectation that if we’re hanging out, having game time, I’m not on my phone.”

Role models

That rule, Sood says, has to go for parents, too.

Parents who don’t model their own guidelines won’t be very good at teaching their children to limit screen time, he cautioned.

“Don’t worry that they’re not listening to you — worry that they’re watching you,” Sood said.

Steffes has noticed that it’s difficult to keep herself in check.

She’s made a conscious effort, lately, to leave her phone in the house during outdoor play time, or wait until bed to finish emailing.

“In the evening, when I’m at home with my family, is when I’m answering messages or helping set up orders, all of that’s through my phone,” she said. “I’ve had to teach myself that I can ignore messages that can go for a while without being answered, and then the kids know, ‘Hey, I’m going to step away and work for a little bit,’ so there’s that disconnect. Because when I’m sitting there, they don’t know if I’m scrolling through Facebook or working.”

The world we live in requires us to be technology-literate and communicate via phone, Sood said. It’s just important to remember to balance out that screen time with in-person interaction.

“Technology isn’t inherently evil or bad,” Sood said. “We have to acknowledge the value, but have the balance.

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