Screen Time Boundaries

For those parenting older children, you are putting the finishing touches on Generation Z.  Those of us with younger children are parenting what is now known to cultural scientists as Generation Alpha.  Generation Z was the first group of children to be raised their entire lifetimes with access to both the internet and handheld technology.  This generation’s brains have codeveloped immersed within technology.  Humans are adaptive and our brains are quite dynamic for shaping to any given environment.  There are folks that argue this technological reality has been to our cultural and mental benefit (Scientific America). Certainly the isolation of COVID would have looked entirely different without virtual connection. However, beyond this debate of whether tech is inherently good or bad for us, what I am most interested in as a parent and as a pediatrician is this:  How do I teach and model for my child the internal boundaries required for maintaining a healthy relationship with screen time? 

As a concierge pediatrician, I am oncall nearly 365 days a year and have been for five years now.  This requires that my phone be available to me at all times, particularly during the daytime hours when my child is awake and witnessing my behavior.  Though this is a work requirement, needing to check my phone for texts and calls sets me up for a dangerous relationship with my phone. Moreover with more addictive phone apps that have been programmed to grab my attention, I can become entirely lost to those around me. I had to remove both the Facebook and TikTok app from my phone.  From my child’s perspective, I am on my phone constantly.  This is what I have been modeling for years and there are consequences to this modeling. Over the past few months I have begun to make radical shifts.  I now have clinical help that affords me three to four day stints in the mountains without my phone in my hand.  I check my phone less habitually due to this new clinical support system.  I am still very present for my clients and more so for myself and my own family. This change has happened over years and represents my mature internal boundary systems at work, SLOWLY over time.  Internal boundaries have to be nurtured and respected in ourselves and then we can begin to teach our children.  They take patience and time to develop.  Children are not born mature.  To expect their brains to be and act like ours is fallacy.  J frequently likes to point out, Mom I am a kid!  I truly forget sometimes that he is only nine years old. 

So what are internal boundaries?  At the simplest definition this is the resulting clarity of our internal yes and no.  For MANY people this part of themselves either never had the chance to fully form and/or due to trauma was lost or muddled with the help of the dysfunctional adults around us. Any toddler knows a true yes and a true no.  This is part of what makes them such a tough crowd!  The loss of our embodied yes and no is the flag that marks the spots of transgenerational trauma.  Say what now?  I know.  This may feel like a HUGE jump for some of you but for those of you that have done boundary work, you are nodding with me. 

Screen time comes down to boundaries.  Ideally for your child these will be cultivated from the inside out.   Turning screen time into a war zone and a battle of wills is exhausting for all involved.  It also has a tendency to hurt rather than nurture the parent-child relationship.  Now, does this mean that I hand a seven year old a tablet and walk away? No, not at all.  I mention this because how much of our children’s screen time are we actually present for?  How many times have I thought, ok I can meet with this client and my kiddo can just watch a show.  The screen has become a babysitter, a break, a moment to catch our breaths as mothers living in a patriarchal society in which frankly we aren’t afforded the support that we need for our own work.  As mothers we have to fight for a moment to breathe and have two consecutive uninterrupted thoughts.  It was 5:30a when I got up to write this article.  It is the ONLY waking quiet I have during the day.  I am certain I am not alone in this and so, the screen becomes our maternal relief. This investigation has revealed the tip of the iceberg and the deeper issues such as our continued cultural lack of maternal support have become visible. This “screen time” issue is so beyond at how many minutes do I set the screen locks.

So what do we do for now?  I get to embrace my child’s journey into embodiment and to help him find his true yes and true no, his internal compass.  And yep, as a mature, embodied parent I do get to act as guide.  I love Shanti Zimmerman’s boundary work and she says that as a parent I provide reference points.  This is very differently than swooping in and imposing a view on someone.  Yes, I have lived longer and have some hard-earned wisdom and maturity to convey.  And most importantly, I get to model my internal boundaries again, and again for Julien to come to a true understanding of how to be a healthy, embodied and present human being.  Whether it is screen time, driving a car, relationships, nutrition, sleep behaviors it will always be more of what we are actually modeling than what is coming out of our mouths.  And what I love about an embodied, boundaried kid is…he isn’t afraid to tell me when I am living/being/acting outside of my own boundaries.

So the first questions I ask myself when my kiddo and I begin to argue about screen time are these:  

  1. How present have I been to him today?  
  2. Is there a need he is attempting to fill through the screen that I can help with, ie missing his friends, feeling lonely, feeling bored?

Typically these questions are enough to get us started down a healthy path of collaborative communication.  

If you’re interested in our screen time specifics currently (this is absolutely dynamic) and likely will have nothing to do with what your particular kid needs…and you can get a feel for what we are doing:

He currently plays video games only on the weekend unless traveling into the mountains which the lack of wifi/signal will mess this sacred time up and so we adjust to travel.  The weekend play is dependent on friends being virtually available as this is his only social life as we are living in a different state homeschooling currently.  The weekend play is far more screen time than he has ever been allowed in his entire life but we monitor it closely and watch for the place where the play starts to lose it luster and he mentally shifts. This requires us to stay present.  If Dad is available he will often play as well to help monitor behaviors and for comradery. My kiddo can’t see all of this internally yet as he’s nine years old.  There is a slow and steady neurological process/awareness at work.  At this point when we see him start to break down (externally visible through speech, movements) we begin coaching and offering alternatives and recommending the end of screen time.  Saying out loud what we are physically noticing in him we help him notice.  There is an off ramp to the video game time that is often ugly and not a lot of fun that lasts for 30min to 1 hr (neurology resetting to real life) AND requires my FULL PRESENCE.  I used to panic in this phase thinking he was going to have permanent damage but now I get that it is a natural transition phase from the intense neurological effects of gaming.  It passes.  Then he’s fine and ready for a real life adventure.  Clearly, this is a LOT of work on our end and I truly believe this is what it takes for him to really get it. 

He earns his daytime/weekday shows through his homeschool work.  Savvy folks recognize this as an external motivator/validation AND it works too and helps me have the energy to remain present after a full day of homeschool!!!!  Internal boundaries/motivation will always win in the end AND it is ok to use external motivation as well as a parent.  The most important thing is that your kid learns the difference between these motivators and knows when they are acting upon them. 

None of this is easy really. It takes my presence and a lot of my time for him to utilize screen time in a healthy way. He’s awake now! And watching The Simpsons and so I better wrap this up.

Love and tenderness to you as you journey with screen use in your own life and that of your kiddos.

-Heather Kim, DO

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