Parent Practices for Family Media/Digital Literacy (Part One of Three)

Spring’s blossoming of new life brings opportunity for refreshing your family media/digital literacy menu. “What menu?’ you may ask. “Family media literacy sounds too complicated and too much trouble for what it’s worth.”

I totally understand. It definitely can be. If you are pressed for time, read no further and go here for 100 Family Media/Digital Literacy Activities.

They are categorized into general ideas for all ages, and then specifically for ages 3-5, 6-10, 11-14, and 15-18. I compiled these over the years and now share them with parents I work with in my own coaching practice and also with the family professionals I train to become certified parent coaches.

If you would like to learn three practices to integrate family media/digital literacy into your routine, read on!

As an overwhelmed single mom with two rambunctious toddlers 21 months apart, I knew media literacy was crucially important because of the research I was doing—but where to begin? One night, lying in bed considering this, I thought of Stephen Covey’s famous admonishment, “Begin with the end in mind.” OK, that made sense to me.

So over a few weeks, I developed my END. (I wrote it down, read it regularly, thought about it often.)

I wanted my sons to grow into adults who:

  • Used all forms of media (including paper and pencil!) for healthy purposes for their own well being as well as for the well being of society.
  • Questioned everything they saw and everything they interacted with on any screen.
  • Continually deepened their understanding of the challenges of staying human in a mass media society and their knowledge about how to stay human.
  • Were conscious and conscientious about the fact that mass media and technological devices are owned by a few who need our dollars to exist—an industry mass culture has goals and priorities that don’t always fit with what’s best for humans or for society.
  • Know their own abilities, strengths, and talents, AND understand themselves as creators who go out and create!

As I consider my now adult sons, I am happy to report that I was able to accomplish these goals—and to my relief and surprise—with a few simple yet focused intentional practices that I am going to share with you.

Interjecting family media/digital literacy into my daily routine with the boys wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined. Keeping my intent to raise savvy screen-smart kids at the forefront of my mind each day helped a lot. Soon their ideas contributed to mine and we found ourselves synergistically increasing their media/digital literacy skills—each day, until they left for college.

Practice #1: Control Screen-Time

Teaching kids media/digital literacy skills can only succeed if we first control and manage screen time. Children and teens addicted to screens won’t be teachable for media/digital literacy. Keeping to sensible guidelines for each age and stage of development enables the growing brain to mature optimally. It prevents them from experiencing the significant negative consequences—and there are many.

If you don’t yet understand how overuse of screens impacts children’s and teens’ development on multiple levels, I highly recommend Dr. Victoria Dunckley’s book, Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time.

As an integrative psychiatrist, Dr. Dunckley has pulled together the research in a most comprehensive, yet readable way. She tells it like it is and doesn’t sugarcoat the disastrous effect screen overuse has on the developing brain and central nervous system. I wholeheartedly endorse her book for parents who want solid, practical ideas for reducing screen time, so children and teens get their lives back. (As parents do as well!) Reading her book can be a wise first step onto an avenue for significant and sustainable changes.

Dr. Dunckley also posts blogs for Psychology Today. In one of her blogs, she provides six physiological mechanisms that explain electronics’ tendency to produce mood disturbance. If you are always in a battle with your child or teen over screen use, read this one for a better understanding of what is happening and why.

And if you need further evidence, I offer a reading list for interested parents, which includes books, research articles, and websites that offer compelling information and lots of practical strategies. You can contact me at info@GloriaDeGaetano.com to request a copy.

So…what’s the best screen-time that supports your child’s optimal development and provides the best foundation for teaching media/digital literacy skills?

I highly recommend:

No screen-time for infants through age 2: (Toddlers Ok to face time with Grandparents, of course—but no TV time, no apps for little ones, no I-Pads, no video games—no screen-play at all.) Consider the information in this article before you make any decisions.

Ages 3-5: No more than 1 hour a day, and in three 20-minute increments would be ideal. The rest of young children’s waking hours must be spent in physical, movement, sensory, and imaginative play experiences. No I-Pads, no apps, no video games.

Ages 6-10: No more than 2 hours a day—less if your child spends more than an hour a day on a screen at school. The detrimental effects on posture, eyesight, and general health continue to mount—even business people have started speaking out about the growing concerns.

And for this age group: No Video Games. Radical, I know. But since I know the vulnerabilities of the young brain and how those vulnerabilities create a major risk for screen and/or video game addiction, I cannot in my integrity make any other recommendation. I also discourage giving children cell phones—at least smart phones. There is no good reason in line with their optimal development as children, ages 6-10, to have access to the Internet 24/7. If adults have huge problems resisting the small screen of their phones, imagine the burden owning a smart phone puts on our children? And, some experts think smart phones may even be changing the human race—certainly young children cannot be expected to use such a formidable device wisely.

Ages 11-14: No more than 2 hours a day—less if your child spends more than an hour a day on a screen at school. Non-violent video games may be helpful learning tools at this stage. No social media accounts. Why? There is no good reason in line with their optimal development for children in this age group to have access to social media 24/7.

Ages 15-18: By waiting until age 15 for a social media account (and for a smart phone, ideally), parents have ensured that they have done everything possible to prepare their child’s brain/mind/body/will and spirit for handling the challenges of 24/7 access to social media and the Internet. And I continue to recommend for this age range, too only non-violent, age appropriate video games. Please see my book (with Dave Grossman) Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill for detailed explanations of the research that may help you understand why I am so firm on this.

I know the above may not sound very do-able. But they are based on my experience helping families with this issue, and what I know works best. I also know you will decide on your guidelines. My hope is that if you see your child acting aggressively, misbehaving, getting poor grades, no longer interested in anything other than screen play—that you then take my recommendations seriously. Limiting screen time will make a positive difference for you and your child—I guarantee it.

Let’s now consider some ways to get started reducing screen time that may work for you and your family:

How to mange screen time may be the major question of most parents today. Having worked with thousands of parents, please know I understand your frustration. In fact, my own parental pain around this issue prompted me to jump into this work in 1987 (You can read about my story here) and to begin the Parent Coaching Institute in 2000.

So where is your pain leading you? What is it whispering? Shouting? Urging?

What is the next step that’s right for you? I don’t know what that is. Only you do. Perhaps one or more of these suggestions can be a breakthrough starting point for you:

1.Try a small change and do it as regularly as possible. For instance, trimming off 15 minutes of screen time each day gives your child 105 more minutes a week to spend in the real world. You never know what s/he will think about do, understand, or conquer in those 105 minutes. In one year you have given back 5,460 minutes or 91 hours. Over the course of 18 years, you have gifted your child with 1,638 hours of non-screen time or better put, real-life time.

2. I am a big fan of regular family meetings. With these, you discuss limits, boundaries, and the reasons for them so that during the upcoming week—when life becomes hectic—your child knows your expectations and understands your rules.

3. It’s so much easier to enforce the hard stuff when there is a lot of good stuff going on each day between you and your child. In my book, Parenting Well in a Media Age: Keeping Our Kids Human, I explain five vital developmental needs that often get short-changed in our media/digital culture. I devote a chapter to each with practical ways to implement them into your busy day. When children’s needs are met, it is so much easier to set boundaries with them!

4. Also in that book, I invite you to explore who you really are as a parent—what are your values and priorities? What are your bottom lines and non-negotiables? Taking time to examine “the parent within you” gives you the necessary fuel for the times when you have to set your foot down.

5. My final suggestion (for now) has to do with creating space for awe to show up in your child’s mind and spirit. Human life in our natural surroundings naturally elicits a sense of wonder—an enchantment with nature, for instance, is one of the best immunizations I know of to prevent screen addiction. How much time does your family spend outdoors? Does your child/teen seek (nag you for?) time outside in play, hiking, or walking the dog? If not, starting here would be an efficient first step, since your child’s relationship to nature will healthily impact his/her relationships with self.

In her book, A Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson, an early environmentalist and the prescient author of Silent Spring, writes:

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement…I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused — a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love — then we wish for knowledge about the subject of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.”

As you “pave the way” for your child to enter adulthood equipped to manage all forms of screen technologies as well as virtual reality, wearable devices, robots, and who knows what else, I invite you to ask yourself:

“What is the END I want to keep in mind NOW?”

Copyright, Gloria DeGaetano, 2017. All rights reserved.

(Part Two outlining Family Media Literacy Practice #2 coming soon!)