By Hansa Bhargava
WebMD Medical Editor
I was driving my 9-year-old son home from school the other day when he said. “Mom, no texting when you are driving.” I explained I was at a red light, but he wasn’t buying my excuse. He wanted me to follow my own rules.
As pediatricians and other experts focus on how screen time affects kids, I wonder whether we should also focus on how it affects parents, especially when it comes to how they interact with their kids.
The science is pretty clear that too much of certain types of screen time (television, video games) isn’t good for children. It can take away precious time from academics and exercise. A recent study reported that teens spend about 9 hours a day on entertainment media. Excessive screen time can sometimes lead to risky behaviors such as sexting and texting when driving, as well as sleep texting and disrupted sleep.
But what’s the impact on a child if she sees her parents always glued to their phones, laptops, or the TV? This is where the science is less than clear.
Parents seem to love screen time almost as much as kids do. A recent Pew Internet Report found that 75% of parents use social media and have an average of about 150 friends on Facebook. This is across age, gender, income and education level. Some 94% post, share, or comment, and 70% say they do it often.
Are parents susceptible to negative effects of media such as advertising as well? The marketers seem to think so: a recent study found 49% of nutritionally poor foods such as cereal and sugar-sweetened drinks were targeted towards parents. And what about the impact on family when parents are on the screen?
Although there does not seem to be any clear data on parents’ screen time and its effect on relationships with their kids, recent research seems to show it probably isn’t good. A small study at Boston Medical Center found that 40 out of 55 adults took out a mobile device almost immediately when they were eating with their kids at a fast food restaurant. In another study, children reported that they felt frustrated and were more likely to act out when their parents were on devices.
Medical and public health experts already know that when parents don’t spend time talking to babies and toddlers, it creates a major gap in their language skills, which could put them behind their peers in reading and language by third grade. If not engaging with kids at these stages has such a colossal impact on their language and academic development, what does it mean when parents use screens to tune out from older ?
Interestingly, some schools are recognizing this issue and are looking to change their curriculum style to better engage parents and children. The Atlanta Speech School, for example, which teaches children with dyslexia and other language disorders, is mentoring parents and teachers to be more of a “conversational partner” and to engage their children in discussions.
When I have helped parents with their overweight kids, I have always advised that the whole family needs to be on the plan for better diet and exercise. After all, if your 8-year-old sees you eating a bag of chips, then he will follow that behavior. The same goes for the role that screens play in a parent’s life. Actions speak louder than words.
Screens are not going away, and some interactive screen time may even be a good thing. But in this brave new world, I think that we can still apply that good, old-fashioned rule: Practice what you preach.
My kids and I now have some new rules in our home that apply to everyone, kids and grown-ups — no screen time in the car, at the dinner table, or at bedtime. Hopefully these first steps will help us get to what really matters: good relationships and happy children.