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We talk about limiting our kids’ screen time, but should we start with limiting ourselves?
Here is my confession: I check email, Facebook, and Twitter much more than I need to.
And, in fact, I check these things much more than I want to.
Last night, while snuggling with my kids, I pulled out my phone to set a timer that would let us know when it was time to find a place to stop in the book we’re reading, and go to bed.
“Oh, wait a sec,” I said, quickly hitting the “Mail” app and scanning a new, but definitely non-urgent email.
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What am I doing? I thought, as my boys waited patiently.
“I’m sorry, guys,” I said. “I really don’t even want to be on my phone when you’re right here with me.”
Now, I was scanning a work-related email. And it is true that much of what I do online is work-related, although I waste plenty of time on cat videos and articles I probably didn’t need to read, too. But, work-related or not, it doesn’t matter.
Why was I thinking about work, anyway? Why couldn’t I just be there with my kids?
The siren song of technology beckons me when I sit down with an actual, paper-and-ink book or magazine. I’ll be quietly reading, or trying to read, and pretty soon my mind starts shouting at me to Google this or that, to stream a song or email someone about something, even if there is really no rush.
I’ve noticed that on days when I’m checking my email every other minute or so, I am (surprise!) more anxious and distracted. I’m less focused. I don’t feel relaxed or in control…not even of myself. After all, I can’t even seem to stop myself from just taking a quick little peek at my inbox to see if there’s anything new and interesting.
(Just this instant, I got up from my desk to retrieve a board game from a high shelf at my son’s request. As I sat back down to my work, my first impulse, which I did not give into, was -- what else? -- to check my email.)
Studies suggest that those of us with mobile devices use them for an average of three hours each day.
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That doesn’t count time using your computer.
That doesn’t count time watching TV.
That’s a lot of screen time.
Other studies have suggested that our devices -- and our social media accounts -- exert a stronger pull on us than alcohol or nicotine.
That’s some pretty strongly addictive power.
And still more studies suggest that increased anxiety, decreased sleep quality, and increased distraction aren’t unique to me or to you. No, being plugged in so much has that effect on pretty nearly everyone.
Perhaps because I know too well how technology affects me, I allow my kids very little screen time.
Early this year, TIME magazine reported that “Taiwanese parents are now legally obligated to monitor their children’s screen time,” and can be “held liable if their children stare at screens for so long that it causes them to become ill, either physically or mentally.”
That may strike the average North American parent as a bit extreme, but the National Institutes of Health, the Mayo Clinic, and the American Academy of Pediatrics have each issued strong warnings against excessive screen time -- citing negative effects on sleep, mood (including anxiety and depression), attention, and physical health.
All three organizations suggest limiting screen time to under 2 hours per day for children older than two -- and urge parents not to allow any screen time whatsoever for infants and children under two years of age.
Because babies’ brains are so rapidly developing (they form up to a thousand new neuronal connections per second), early experiences are very important. Neuronal connections become the pathways that become the architecture of the brain, and they are most susceptible to being disrupted when children are young.
In a New York Times “Room for Debate” opinion essay, Lucy Jo Palladino maintained that reading aloud to children from birth (as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends) “builds a better brain” than do the apps and videos marketed toward the parents of infants as brain-building and interactive.
I am grateful that I didn’t have a smartphone or tablet in the years during which my kids’ brains were so pliable. I didn’t have to fight against the temptation to use these things to buy myself a few minutes of peace and quiet, minutes I desperately needed. I remember the days when it seemed I couldn’t make a quick trip to the bathroom or cook a pot of rice without a small person clinging to me and shrieking. I have empathy, not judgment, for parents who use technology to buy a few minutes’ respite.
Even so, these days, my husband and I allow the kids a limited number of ‘Minecraft Minutes’ each week; they can earn minutes and lose minutes, and they’ve learned to “spend” them wisely. We’ll watch movies together as family now and then, but we also work hard to eat meals and play board games and take walks in the woods together -- totally unplugged.
I won’t lie. Sometimes I’ll check my phone under table. Sometimes, when I’ve conquered my bad habit momentarily and put my devices well away from me or left them at home, I’ll just itch to know whether so-and-so has gotten back to me yet.
But, more often, returning from hours (or even better, days) away from incessant connection is the uncomfortable part. Rich conversation, absorbing, interesting activities, creativity, closer connection with others, and a deeper sense of quiet in my soul are the rewards of curbing my craving for digital connection.
And maybe it’s a cliché, but it’s also true: it’s easier to fellowship with and find true refreshment in God when I’m not repeatedly tapping “refresh” on my inbox.
I want that space -- space of true refreshment and recreation -- for my kids, and for myself.
I start with one of those kitchen timers -- or, in a pinch, my phone’s timer -- and set it for twenty minutes. For twenty minutes, I will do one thing, something that doesn’t involve a screen, with my full attention. And then for forty minutes. And so on. Because these devices are a part of our lives, for sure.
But surely, they make good servants -- and bad masters.
(The author would like you to know that she did not check her email during the writing of this article. When she did finally check it, nothing interesting had come in during the writing of this article.)
Rachel Marie Stone is a regular columnist for The Englewood Review of Books and has contributed to Christianity Today, InTouch, OnFaith, Books and Culture, The Christian Century, and Sojourners, among other publications. Her first book, Eat With Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food, won the CT Book Award for Christian Living. She is also the author of The Unexpected Way, a book about the Gospels for children. Rachel lives near Philadelphia with her husband and two sons. You can find her blogging on food, family, faith, and justice at Patheos and follow her on Twitter at @Rachel_M_Stone.