Talking About Screen Time for Kids with Sensory Issues
Talking about screen time and balance with our kids who have sensory issues is important but can be hard if our kids are defensive and we're frustrated. Our healthy concerns about them spending too much time on screens can be whipped up into fear and anxiety by the many media stories about how bad screen time is. Yes, screen time has its drawbacks. For one thing, the more time our kids spend on screens, the less time they have to be out in nature looking into a distance (something that is correlated with a lower rate of nearsightedness). Yet they have to use screens for school. And let's face it, technology is integrated into everyday life so extensively that we can't ban screens entirely. Instead, we have to find a healthy balance between screen time and off-screen time. Plus, our kids often socialize in positive, healthy ways through screens and as a result of screens (for example, talking face-to-face with other kids about video games or their favorite YouTube videos). And they might find that watching instructional videos, with their auditory instructions, visual demonstrations, and subtitles, really help them in learning new skills and developing their knowledge and understanding.
In my recent conversation with Jennifer L. W. Fink who blogs at BuildingBoys.net and has a podcast called "On Boys," we talked about screen time and kids, sharing examples from our own sons' lives that you might be able to relate to as a parent. And if you have read the new edition of Raising a Sensory Smart Child, you know it's got an entire chapter on screen time and our kids. One of the topics I think it's important to know about is that when it comes to balancing screen time with not-on-screen time, you don't want to put your child on the defensive unnecessarily.
Talk with your child and listen to WHY they are on screen at any given time—and listen to the answers nonjudgmentally. Keep an open mind. Listen carefully rather than instantly reacting to what your child says. As Jennifer and I discussed, it's important not to assume they're playing a video game or engaging in unhealthy conversations with friends on social media. Ask and listen. Then, acknowledge what they just said instead of instantly responding negatively, or ask more questions. In other words:
Parent: "What are you doing on your iPad?"
Kid: "Watching a video." Parent. "You need to stop goofing around and start doing your homework!"
What if your kid IS doing their homework: They are accessing a YouTube video that explains a concept they didn't quite understand when the teacher discussed it in class? Now your child is irritated and you have to backpedal to get the conversation going again.
Here is a better way to handle this situation:
Parent: "What are you doing on your iPad?"
Kid: "Watching a video." Parent: "Watching a video. Ah. What about?"
Responding this way demonstrates you are open to learning about what your child is learning or watching. View the video for a minute, and if you don't like it and you're getting upset, breathe mindfully, noticing your breathing, for at least ten seconds to alleviate your irritation. Then say, "How did you discover this video? ... I see. And what do you like about it?" If you're okay with what they're watching, and it's truly an educational video even if you think it's on an unimportant subject, say, "Interesting. Is this something for school or something you're just curious about?" Err on the side of casual questions and listening patiently instead of making statements. In this way, you'll get more information from your child and be better able to understand the "why" behind their behaviors.
It can be easier to bring up screen time balance and, in fact, any "We need to talk about your habits that I'm not happy with" conversations when you're both doing something low-pressure. Raise the topic when you are having breakfast on a weekend morning, folding laundry together, or driving/riding in a car in light traffic. If you want your child to turn off the screens and do something outdoors but often get resistance, find out why.
Conversations that are focused on listening and acknowledging what is said, undertaken with curiosity and patience, tend to be more productive—and less stressful! If your child's screen time is worrying you, change the conversation. Set a goal to learn more and work with your child to come up with a better balance.
And be sure to check out my YouTube conversation on Balancing Screen Time with Jennifer L. W. Fink. And remember, the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child, which I cowrote, is filled with ideas for helping your child who has sensory issues.