How to Show Your Children Healthy Electronic Use

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There are many news stories and research studies about the dangers kids face when they spend too much time on their electronic devices. But there’s much less information about the impact screen time can have on adults, especially when those adults are parents.

It’s clear, however, that many parents are overindulging in screen time. A 2016 survey by Common Sense media shows the average parent of tweens and teens spends more than nine hours per day behind a screen.

While you might be thinking that’s because adults have to be on a computer for their jobs, the survey found very little screen time was work-related.

In fact, parents said 82 percent of the time they spend on digital devices is devoted to personal screen media.

Despite the number of hours parents spend on their digital devices, 78 percent of them believe they are good technology role models for their children. But in reality, all that time parents spend behind screens is likely to set a bad example for children.

What Parents Are Doing on Their Devices

The survey reveals most parents are spending their screen time watching TV—over three hours per day, on average. But parents report they’re also spending an hour and a half per day playing video games and another hour on social media.

Only 15 minutes per day were spent reading books on e-readers. Browsing websites took up over an hour and a half and only about an hour and a half was spent on work-related activities.

Parents Are Worried About the Effects of Screen Time on Kids

Even though most parents don't seem to be worried about their own screen time, most of them are worried about their child’s electronics use. Forty-seven percent of tween parents and thirty-nine percent of teen parents think their child spends too much time online.

Many of them expressed concern that too much social media would harm a child’s behavior, impair focus, damage face-to-face communication, and reduce physical activity. Research backs up those concerns, stating too much screen time places children at risk of a variety of mental and physical health problems, social issues, and educational problems.

Over half of all parents worried their teen might become addicted to technology.

That’s also a legitimate concern as many teens struggle to function in the absence of electronic devices.

Sadly, some kids are missing out on healthy childhood experiences. Rather than spend time with friends, they’re talking to strangers on the internet and instead of playing outside, they’re playing video games.

The Dangers of Too Much Parental Screen Time

Although parents worry about their tweens and teens spending too much time on their digital devices, there seems to be much less concern for how too much screen time might impact their own lives.

Adults who spend hours each day using their digital devices may face many of the same harmful effects children face, including weight gain, sleep deprivation, eye strain, head and neck problems, and reduced social skills.

But, perhaps the biggest problem of all is that too much time on digital devices may be impairing parents’ relationships with their children.

When parents are staring at their phones, rather than giving their teens their undivided attention, their communication is affected. Or, when the family sits in separate rooms staring at their own individual screens, there are fewer opportunities to bond.

Even if you’re watching TV in the same room, screen time limits real interaction. If you really want to spend quality time with your teen, an interactive activity, like playing catch or going for a walk, will be much more productive.

Parents Who Use Screens Have Children Who Use Screens

Studies show parents who spend a lot of time on their digital devices are less likely to set time limits on their kids’ screen time. That makes sense since it’s hard to convince your child not to play video games when you’re glued to the Xbox in the other room.

But it’s important to consider what habits you’re instilling in your child. Researchers have found that childhood screen time habits extend into adulthood. If your child watches eight hours of TV per day at age 10, he’s likely to watch eight hours of TV per day at age 20.

The tween and teen years are a formative time marked by many developmental changes. Many of the habits your child develops during this time can become ingrained for life.

Setting an unhealthy example for your child now—and allowing him to indulge in excessive screen time—could have lifelong consequences. It’s important for your child to gain the skills he's going to need to become a responsible adult. And he likely won't be able to live a rich and full life if he's always glued to a screen.

How to Scale Back Your Electronics Use

You certainly don’t have to ban digital devices or unplug from everything all the time. But it is important to help your child establish a healthy relationship with electronics.

Teach him that technology is a useful tool and electronics could serve many helpful purposes in his life. But make sure electronic devices don’t become your family’s sole source of entertainment and communication.

Here’s how you can become a healthy role model for your child:

  • Establish household rules about electronics. Rather than set limits just on your child’s electronic use, establish rules for everyone. Saying, “No smartphones on the nightstand,” or “No texting in the car—even when you’re a passenger,” can help establish healthier habits for everyone.
  • Don’t multi-task. It can be tempting to send text messages while you watch TV or scroll through social media while you’re having a conversation with someone, but multi-tasking is a bad idea. Studies show multi-tasking harms concentration, memory, and productivity. You certainly don’t want your child to pick up on that bad habit by surfing the web while he’s doing his homework or checking his phone while he’s in class.
  • Have device-free meals. Make mealtimes about food and conversation. Even if your child eats breakfast at the table by himself, don’t let him use his electronics. Encourage everyone in the family to set aside time for meals without any screens.
  • Schedule screen-free activities. Get into the habit of doing screen-free activities, like reading a book. But also, make it a habit to engage in screen-free activities with the family. Play board games together or go hiking on the weekends.
  • Turn off the background noise. Many families get into the habit of keeping the TV on for background noise. But, doing so sets an unhealthy precedent for your child. Turn off the background noise and allow for conversation—or even some quiet time.
  • Pay attention to your digital habits. Recognizing your habits and the example you’re setting for your child is key to becoming a better role model. If you struggle to spend time with your child without your phone in your hand or you are lost without the internet, your child will pick up on your bad habits. Pay attention to how much time you’re devoting to your devices every day and cut down as needed.
  • Consider a digital detox. If dialing back your screen time seems impossible, consider a digital detox. Unplug from everything and don’t allow anyone in the family to use screens. Whether you choose to do that one Saturday every month or you decide to get rid of screens for one week, a digital detox could benefit everyone.

Good Habits Start With You

It’s not enough to establish rules for your kids that limit their screen time. You also have to role model healthy habits if you want to set your child up for success.

Bad digital habits can sneak up on you and slowly, take over your life. If you’re waking up in the night to check your smartphone or you’re scrolling through social media at stoplights, you’re being a bad example for your teen.

If you’re having difficulty putting your smartphone down, or you recognize that you seem to have a problem stepping away from the screens, seek professional help. Talk to your doctor or schedule an appointment with a mental health professional.

It’s important to show your child that you recognize an issue and you’re willing to take whatever steps necessary to become the best parent and the healthiest role model you can be.

9 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.