Julie Entwistle, MBA, BHSc (OT), BSc (Health / Gerontology)
I was enjoying a nice dinner with a friend (also an occupational therapist) and we started a great conversation about phone use with our children. She asked me “how much screen time is too much”? Of course, there isn’t really an academic answer, but we talked from a professional perspective about the behavior of phones, the social risks and benefits, and from the parent side of our fears and worries about how these have become a staple in the lives of our kids. Then, she changed my world by introducing me to the concept of screen time (more on that below).
Parents have very polarized views on phones, so I get that how I manage this in my household may not fit with the values of others. To recap, I have four teen daughters ages 14-18. Our phone philosophy is that we provide our girls a phone for their 14th Birthday (Grade 9) and pay for this until their 18th Birthday. After that, they are on their own to fund this expense (and can get as many gigs as they want). On our plan, they have 2 gigs each and do not get an extension if they run out. Their access to Wi-Fi at home is scheduled and is not limitless. They are not allowed to have their devices in their bedrooms (concessions are made sometimes but they already have “old school alarm clocks” to negate the “I need it to wake up” argument) and they know that if this is beside their bed it needs to be in airplane mode to not disrupt their sleep.
Too strict? Perhaps, but I see phones like every other “potentially harmful” thing I keep my kids from. Sedentary time, junk food and pop consumption (tip – just don’t buy it!), and of course we do not serve them alcohol or buy them cigarettes. I ensure they are all engaged in something active and encourage them to make decent food choices, even if they don’t. Those things are easy for me to “parent about” because it is well established that “sitting disease” is a thing, “diabetes and obesity” are a problem, and alcohol and drugs are horrible for developing brains (not to mention illegal for my kids based on age). But screen time? How much is “too much”? We don’t really know that yet. We know that phones are highly addictive – more addictive than cocaine – and cause a whole host of behaviors that, like addictions, are hard to break. They also promote highly sedentary behavior (they are typically used while sitting). So, here is how I handled this (and note this is for iPhones with a family plan, I don’t know how this works with any other devices):
- Go to: “settings, screen time”. To get to know how this works, the top shows your usage. Push on that and you have the option to look at Today or the Last 7 Days. Below that is a list of all the things you do on your phone and for how long.
- Go back to “screen time” and you will see somethings below your usage:
o Downtime (schedule time away from the screen)
o App Limits (set time for apps)
o Always Allowed (things you want to always have access to)
o Content and Privacy (blocking inappropriate content
- Then below that, you will see “Family” and a list of those “underage” as per your family plan.
Now for the cool parent stuff. You can click on any one of your children’s devices and you can see for each of them what you can also see for yourself. Patterns, usage behavior, time on certain things, and you can also put limits to the above (Downtime, Apps, Always Allowed and Content). It asks you for a password so as a parent you can pick something that the kids won’t know. They can’t change their limits on their own.
I don’t recommend arbitrarily just going in and setting limits as I think the best part of the “screen time” feature is the conversation that can happen around figuring out what is “reasonable”. With my kids, I chatted with each of them about their usage pattern (something they never looked at). We talked about the time on their Apps, and for some, questions like: “4 hours on Rodeo Stampede”? This brought their awareness to their habits and allowed me to understand their insight into whether this was “good, bad or ugly”. And honestly, it was a mix of all three. After we understood their patterns, we decided on our “screen time limit” (for us three hours / day) and went through to give permission for all the “good” to continue, the “bad” to be limited, and the “ugly” to stop. And the best thing is that these limits apply regardless of data or Wi-Fi – so even if they have unlimited Wi-Fi in public places, they can’t use their devices more than programmed.
Since implementing this several weeks ago, their screen time has dropped significantly, and they don’t even use their devices to their limits (which were set lower than their averages to start with). In fact, three hours might be more than they need.
All of this brings me back to a popular concept in my profession of occupational therapy: behavior change starts with being able to track and understand it in the first place. Once you know where behavior is at, you can make a conscious and concerted effort to modify it to improve your own health. Even if you drop your usage by 30 minutes a day and maintain that for several weeks, you just returned yourself 3.5 hours per week to do other (healthier?) things.
What’s next Apple? An iFridge?