In Middlebury a group of parents have joined together to talk about and investigate screen time and its impact on children and families. Amy Mason, Samantha Farrell Schmitt, and Julie Berry founded the organization Parents Supporting Thoughtful Technology after they attended a parent meeting in Weybridge, VT, where Dr. Michael Seaton, a local pediatrician, led a discussion about technology and its impact on children and families. After hearing the doctor’s experiences with his own children and others in the community, the three decided to come together to support each other and to find ways for kids to feel safe and supported as technology changes and becomes more available. The trio never thought they would start an organization, but simply wanted to continue the conversation. They realized that tech was feeling overwhelming to families and schools and wanted to be useful. It began with just the three of them organizing a community brainstorming meeting. When the session took place, 25 people came out on a cold February night. It felt like the community had been waiting to connect about the tech issue. Families shared their frustrations, feeling they were falling short as parents and what was happening in the schools was not what they hoped for. From this meeting a wish list was created.
The topics that rose to the surface were:
- Support- Give parents a vehicle for sharing information and strategies.
- Information-What resources are available to families?
- Activism- Getting involved in changing things that, as a group, they felt needed attention.
The group now consists of parents, teachers and other community members connecting in the interest of creating a healthy tech environment for kids, at home and at school. Focused on learning and support, they come together to become better informed about best practices surrounding the use of smartphones, social media and other tech topics.
Amy and Samantha wanted to be clear that neither they, nor anyone in their group, are experts and they do not judge families for their tech practices. Each family is unique and needs to discover what works best them.
Suggestions for best practices
Children love to mimic the bigger world around them. Parents should be mindful of the behavior we are modeling for them. When they see adults (i.e. parents, teachers, etc.) very engaged with their phones or other tech toys on a regular basis, then that is what they are going to want to do as well. When Samantha saw one of the children in the preschool pick up a play phone and begin swiping and said “hold on a minute sweetheart” It became clear just how much technology has become part of children’s everyday life.
Parents Supporting Thoughtful Technology suggests that articulating to your children what you are doing on your phone can be a helpful strategy. A parent could say “I need to answer this text to set up a playdate for you” or “I need to ask Dad to bring home some milk.” Then the child knows what you are doing and that it is intentional. Starting these conversations around screens as early as possible and setting limits when children are young can lay the ground work to make things easier going forward.
There are several studies about young brains and screens that show brain matter changes with screen use, particularly with high levels of use (7 hours or more per day). Skills viewed on screen, such as stacking blocks, do not translate to having the same skill in life. A young child might be able to stack blocks on a screen, but may not be able to do so with their hands. It is important to acknowledge the opportunity of cost, or what is not happening when children are using screens. Interaction with siblings or parents, lack of physical activity or looking at books all impact the health and well-being of a child.
Suggested guidelines from the book: Screen Time- How Electronic Media-From Baby Videos to Educational Software-Affects Your Young Child by Lisa Guernsey:
- Birth up to one year old -Zero time is best- co viewing a facetime with grandma or an occasional educational show might be the exception.
- 2-5 years old– one hour a day with a parent.
Delaying screen exposure until a child is older will not put them at a disadvantage in a digital world.
For families with older children it is important to set clear boundaries. This will vary from household to household. Some families have different guidelines on weekdays and weekends; others do not. An example might be-5- 10-minute turns during the week and 3 half hour turns on the weekend. Other families use half hour turns any day of the week. Amy notes that the key is that there is something in place that is intentional. Otherwise, kids will do what they naturally want to do, which is to spend more screen time. If the family does not have some kind of clear agreement, it is easy to end up in conflict.
Routines and clear boundaries are a parent’s best friend. It is important to carry out whatever your family decides works best for them. You do not want to end up in constant re-negotiation. Which can be exhausting. Routine is helpful for both kids and adults.
When kids are bored it can lead to wanting more screen time. Even as adults we look at our phones in our downtime. If we were being mindful of our screen use, we might make a different, more productive choice by choosing something that is better for own well-being. Figuring out what to do with yourself when you are bored is a life skill that even adults can struggle with sometimes.
Suggestions and resources
- Create “screen free spaces”, or times, such as no devices at the table or during a sleepover.
- commonsensemedia.org offers reviews and suggested age ranges for books, movies, apps and games for kids
- Wait until eighth grade before children have their own cell phones- waituntil8th.org
What is the impact on the community?
Parents Supporting Thoughtful Technology feel that the issue of screen time is not just a family or an academic issue, but a public health issue. What does it mean for our communities if we consistently have our head down in our devices and are not interacting? We are missing human connection. What are the inputs or changes that can happen so that outcomes are better?
- Making sure that people are aware of, and have the skill to set limits.
- Hearing from other parents and educators about their successes or challenges is powerful.
- Connecting with a parent.
Parents Supporting Thoughtful Technology currently serves the Middlebury area. Members will be part of a panel discussion at Middlebury Middle School focusing on the topic of resiliency.
They will be facilitating discussions at local preschools by asking the questions – What are the challenges for parents and children with screens? What works for your family, and more importantly, what does not? What is your family’s 24-hour digital diet?
The trio is willing to share how they came together with other communities. For more information or to contact them please visit https://psttvt.org/.