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Is too much screen time ruining my family life?

Your son is soaking up the 'wisdom' of famous YouTubers while your daughter plays Fortnite with her friends. You and your spouse are downstairs watching a box set and frantically googling something that came to mind during the opening scene. Midway through, the grandparents call in on FaceTime to see what you’re all up to. Sound familiar?

Wherever we go we are surrounded by screens and devices. And let’s face it, most of us enjoy what they have to offer. Whether it’s the entertainment of a good TV series, finding out what people are up to on social media, creating online content, making our homes more secure or navigating to a place we’ve never been before, many of us wonder how we ever lived without them.

But there can also be major downsides. There have been several news stories in recent months about the effects of screen time on children and young people, with various conclusions reached. Some suggest that it’s not harmful for our kids to spend hours online every day, while others advise that age and time limits are introduced to minimise harmful impact.

However, very few of these studies have explored the long-term impact of our device dependence. Have you ever tried talking to someone who is in the middle of a Facebook browse or playing a popular game? You might as well be talking to a brick wall. If we’re busy swiping and scrolling all day long, are we missing out on important interactions and conversations with our loved ones? 

Then there are the safety concerns of letting young people – and even fully grown adults – publicise their lives online and connect with people they don’t know, not to mention giving them the ability to view content that is best left unwatched. Social media sites are being urged to crack down on harmful content relating to self-harm and suicide, but this is difficult to regulate, and cyber bullying is already a major problem. Even if our children are ‘safe’ online, how do we stop them (and ourselves) playing the comparison game and feeling constantly inadequate when they see their contemporaries living out their perfect lives with their perfect bodies and their perfect partners?

Here are some top tips to make your devices work for your family rather than them allowing them to control your lives:

  1. Set strict time limits. This will tell you how long everyone is spending on their devices and help you work out what is healthy and what isn’t. Apps are available to help with this, but remember to factor in all your different devices, not just the smartphone or tablet. You might want to allow longer at weekends, or to use screen time as a treat when a certain task is completed.
  2. Use screens to bring you together. Why not use a Bible app to read God’s word as a family? Or watch a film together without any other devices in the room? Why not play active games together on a console or Skype people you all know and love to find out their news? If you’re feeling really adventurous you could make a vlog or an album of selfies based on your family activities.
  3. Ban the tech at key times. Many families do their main catch-ups at meal times or just before bed. However it works in your family, try to eliminate the screens at these times so you’re not missing out on key moments with your loved ones.
  4. Put safety first. Make sure all your devices have parental locks or controls on, and keep up to date with developments that will help keep your whole family safe. Try to make sure that devices are used in public spaces rather than in bedrooms, and consider having an open password policy so you can check accounts if you have genuine concerns.
  5. Talk about it. Often we only talk about devices when we’re telling the kids (or the spouse) to get off them and do something else, but let’s try to have other healthy conversations about them. What do your children enjoy playing or watching most and why? Have you seen a funny video you think they would like? Is there anything that annoys them about the way you use your phone? Do they know not to buy expensive in-app purchases or download paid-for content? Can you come up with some activities together that don’t involve screens?