Managing Your Family’s Media Time in a World of Screens

Matthew Johnson

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Screen-Free Week (May 4th to 10th), and it’s striking to consider just how our relationship with screen media has changed in that time. Who would have guessed in 1994 – when the Discman was the height of media technology, and even DVD players were still two years away – that today many of us would have devices that can access an effectively endless variety of music or video, can be used anywhere, and fit into our pockets?

According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), while TV time has declined slightly over the last few years, that drop has been more than made up for by the rise of online video. Plus, of course, there are other screen media such as video games, social networks and the Web – all increasingly accessed through mobile devices, according to MediaSmarts’ Young Canadians in a Wired World research. There are so many screens in our lives today that the idea of doing without them – even for a week – can seem practically impossible.

The good news is that even if you – or your kids – don’t want to go dark for the whole week, there are a lot of ways in which you can embrace the spirit of Screen-Free Week not just for seven days but all year round. Here are some tips on managing your family’s screen time:

Whenever possible, co-view with your kids. One of the biggest concerns about screen use is that it can reduce the amount of time we spend interacting with other people. You can make media an opportunity to interact by watching (or playing) along with your children, and looking for opportunities to connect what’s on the screen with their lives. Watch out for advertising and branding (not just on TV – kids’ online spaces are also highly commercialized) and problematic portrayals of gender, body image and diversity. Look for chances to talk about them with your children: check out our tip sheet Co-Viewing With Your Kids for advice on how to do this.

Consider quality, not just quantity. While it’s good to keep an eye on how much time your family is spending in front of screens, you should consider what’s on those screens as well. Thanks to digital technology, screen time can be interactive and creative: we can use screen media to create artwork or music, or keep in touch with friends and relatives around the world. (Our Young Canadians in a Wired World research found that Canadian kids use social networks to connect with family as often as with friends.) In our blog Sharing Social Media as a Family, our parent blogger Andrea Tomkins explores ways that parents can make social media time family time. Screen media can be educational, as well; look for ways to supplement educational media with reading or hands-on activities to make sure the content sticks.

Establish times and places when screens should be off. With younger kids, you can start by establishing times when different screens are allowed to be used. As they get older and use media more independently, make sure that some times and places are always screen-free: the dinner table and bedrooms, for instance, and the hour before bedtime (research has repeatedly shown that screen time before bed has significant harmful effects on both how long and how well we sleep.) Our Young Canadians in a Wired World research found that more than a third of students were worried that they spend more time online; they need guidance from their parents in how to manage their online and offline lives.

Keep a screen journal. If your family isn’t ready to commit to a week without screens, try having them keep a screen journal instead. Keeping a record of all the time we spend in front of screens – and why – can be an important step towards using screens more consciously and mindfully: after a week you can reflect on the patterns you’ve seen and try to cut out times when you’ve used screens as background noise or just out of habit.

There’s no escaping the fact that screens are a big part of our world, and are likely to be a bigger part of our children’s. It’s not that hard, though, to help them develop good habits and attitudes towards media and empower them to use screens mindfully not just for a week, but for their whole lives.