Screen and social media habits: Finding a healthy balance
by Victoria Della Cioppa
Screen usage and social media are necessary in present society. The question is not about eliminating these vices from our lives, but rather finding a healthy balance between online life and the negative habits that could form. According to one teenage testimonial from the Children’s Screen Time Action Network, “There’s a difference between going to screens to diffuse and relax and going to screens to escape confronting reality and your problems.”
A key moment where caregivers can intervene is bedtime. Establishing nighttime routines early and getting children in the habit of developing a sleep schedule is a fundamental skill that will serve them beyond childhood. The Canadian Pediatrics Society recommends that screens be put away a minimum of one hour before bedtime because the bright light and constant stimulation from the screens can alter the body’s natural sleep rhythm. Instead, use this time to establish a bedtime routine. Review your child’s agenda, pick snacks, put on pajamas, brush teeth and read a bedtime story. As children get older, this routine will not only become automatic, but will cue their brain for sleep. The goal is that by setting this routine early, teenagers will be less attached to their device during bedtime and more willing to charge their devices in a common room.
When teenagers receive social media notifications, dopamine is released in the brain. This trigger is the body’s natural reward system, but is also highly distracting from tasks, including homework. Caregivers have a responsibility to set boundaries around screentime use and teach children when it is acceptable to be on their devices and when they need to focus on the non-digital world. Setting media-free locations, such as the bedroom, and media-free times, especially when doing homework, gives children the permission to concentrate on something other than their devices. If, however, your children need to be on their devices for schoolwork, consider following the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, for 20 seconds, stand up and look at something 20 feet away. This trick refocuses both the eyes and the brain from the overstimulating effects of screens.
As one teenager wisely pointed out, there is a difference between intentional and passive screentime. We must teach youth to be mindful of such moments and shift their default habit to another activity, “Make sure that every time you are engaged with your phone that you actually want to be. Sometimes I’ll be scrolling for no reason, I don’t really want to be on my phone but it’s just what I’ve learned to do when nothing is happening. Recognize those moments, put down your phone and go do something enjoyable,” according to Children’s Screen Time Action Network.
Adults can assist youth by providing alternatives to screentime during nonscheduled time as well as externalize reasons for their own media consumption by articulating to their children their goals for being online unexpectedly. The most powerful act caregivers can do is recognize teachable moments and provide strategies to set children on the path toward having a healthy relationship with screens.
Victoria Della Cioppa is project development officer – School Climate for the English Montreal School Board.