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Parents need screen time limits, too

By Thomson Reuters Foundation - Sep 05,2018 - Last updated at Sep 05,2018

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As much as children need limits on their smartphone use and screen time on other devices, parents need “off-hours” time, too, according to a new resource published in JAMA Paediatrics. 

Children learn smartphone habits from their parents, so it’s important to make time to unplug and “single-task”, prioritise quality time with children, and resist the urge to document everything, the authors write. 

“With mobile devices, parents have a personalised, interactive computer containing all of their work, social, informational and entertainment lives in their pockets,” said Jenny Radesky of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who co-wrote the one-page primer for parents. 

Radesky, a developmental behavioural paediatrician, has found in her own research that parents who are absorbed with and distracted by their mobile devices tend to have less parent-child interaction, more conflict with kids and encounter more difficult child behaviours over time. 

“When I started this line of research, there were a bunch of studies showing that parents who watch more TV have kids who watch more TV,” she told Reuters Health in a phone interview. “And when the TV is left on in the background, parents and children talk to each other less and play less richly.” 

Available for free, the new patient page offers practical tips about media use. Although mobile technology has made many tasks easier, research shows parents have more demands than ever before. 

“As a working mom, I know how difficult it is to handle my kids when I’m thinking about a complicated problem at work, stressed about world news or feeling like I’m not being responsive to the work or social demands my device contains,” Radesky said. 

Radesky and co-author Megan Moreno of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison first recommend that parents step back and think about their relationship with their phone. Instead of using it as a stress reliever, take deep breaths and go for a walk. Instead of withdrawing into a phone to avoid difficult family interactions, purposefully engage with others and potentially confront issues. Instead of losing track of time, be aware of attention hogs and notice how much time has passed when checking e-mail or social media. 

“Multitasking makes us less effective and efficient at anything we try to do concurrently,” Radesky said. “Parenting is no different.” 

They also recommend that parents think about what aspects of their smartphone stress them out the most, such as checking e-mail or the news, and saving those for a time when family members are not around. 

In addition, parents should prioritise mealtimes, bedtimes and specific downtimes for family members to unplug and single-task together. Since children copy their parents’ behaviours, it is also wise to avoid actions that kids should not learn, such as checking the phone while driving, posting unkind content or ignoring other people while using the phone. 

“Parental screen time can reduce face-to-face interaction that is vital to children’s emotional and intellectual development,” said Jennifer Shu of Children’s Medical Group in Atlanta, who is also medical editor of the American Academy of Paediatrics consumer information website, HealthyChildren.org. 

“Parental screen time can also take away from adequate supervision and lead to safety issues,” said Shu, who was not involved in the JAMA Paediatrics primer. 

When parents use smartphones for social support, shared enjoyment with their children or to accomplish tasks faster so they can return to family time, they report seeing smartphones as a positive force in their lives, Radesky and Moreno write. In one study, the authors note, parents said when they were forced to “unplug” for a few days because of a broken phone or power outage, they enjoyed how clear their head was, how they could focus on single-tasking, and how much easier it was to communicate with their young children.

The patient page also recommends resisting the urge to photograph, document and post everything. Parents should be in the moment with their kids and let go, which will demonstrate an appropriate type of tech-life balance.

“Parents should model good behaviour whenever possible,” Shu said. “Use common sense and be a good role model for your kids.”

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