Photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash

We Use the Tools, So Find The Strengths in Them

My colleague, Ian O’Byrne, posted here earlier this week about Diane Sawyer’s two-hour special that aired on ABC on Friday, May 17, 2019. In this post, I will comment on the take aways I saw after watching and discussing ScreenTime.

First of all, the clips that are available of the full length special only show five 8-minute clips of the ~80 minutes of reporting. If you don’t watch the full report, you miss the nuances of the messaging. In Part 1, for example, you see screens being positioned as the tool that sucks family time away. Sawyer’s team has a single case study exemplar of a white nuclear family with kids that are adolescent or older to demonstrate “how quickly time slips away” when screens are part of their life. What you don’t see in the clip, though, is the conclusion of the “intervention” that the family participate in after they reviewed how many hours they had spent with screens in hand over the course of approximately 30 hours on a weekend (parents averaged 5 hours and children 12+ hours each).

The intervention was counseling in which the therapists suggested “making more time for adventure and family life” and considering how we embrace screens as things that enhance family. In other words, one part of the the solution that the therapists recommended in the report was leveraging screens to enhance the communication between family members. What this means is that the general mainstream populations that don’t take time or perhaps do not have access to the full episode is that they don’t get the message that the tool is NOT the villain, rather, it is the habits we humans have developed around them that is presented as problematic.

Secondly, there are some excellent points made in the report. Researcher Tracy Dennis-Tiwary stated, “Face to face time with children is not just the icing on the cake–it IS the cake.” I agree with this statement. However, I do not believe that face to face time cannot include screens. Consider photos and videos to document experiences. Consider making something together with technological tools (that may involve a screen). Try to avoid media that functions like digital candy (e.g., media that use extrinsic rewards to keep kids engaged or that push new content to children without breaks) and limit it especially when the child is using it alone.

Scene from Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor.

Finally, I want to share this last bit of commentary, that is contextualized in a recent Q&A panel I served on following a showing of Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor. The (55 and older) audience asked several pointed questions about the function of media and screens in their children’s and grandchildren’s lives. Their line of questioning went like this: “We see that our children don’t have control over our grandchildren. The young ones are on phones or games or iPads all the time. How can we help?” My response was something like the following, which I will unpack below: “1) recognize the context in which most of your children have become parents in; 2) lead with their strengths; 3) change the policies that will help create the changes you hope for.”

1) recognize the context in which most of your children have become parents

By this, I mean that much of the 55+ generation in that neighborhood lived experiences in which one parent went to work and one stayed home with the children to tend for the housework and the children. Now, we have more families with two parents who both work full time jobs. If those jobs are good jobs, they are given a decent salary with 2-4 weeks of paid vacation time, with no paid child birthing/bonding leave available to working parents. So, parents go back when children are 6 weeks. Many mothers lose their rhythm with nursing and purchase formula (which is EXPENSIVE). Daycare is also expensive and universal PreK is not available in our state (IL). Even if there were that option there is still 3 years time to find childcare before they can enter a preschool program.

At three, most families choose Community preschool programs, which often only run for two hours a day. Kids go to another child care provider after this. Then when parents come home after working a full day they are still left with all of the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and housework to do. Schools typically have at least 10 weeks of vacation/break time throughout the year. If parents split time off to reduce expenses for camps and childcare, they are LUCKY to be able to spend a few days together, as a family, without jockeying work, home, and all the other things of life. Plus, many parents worry that our streets/neighborhoods are not safe for children to just go out and play in.

In sum, many parents are trying to leave work early to collect children from care/school and so find themselves behind on work, which eeks into the time the 55+ generation perceives to be family time. Plus, they’re signing kids up for organized activities in safer places than they perceive their yards to be. Certainly there are other ways to paint this context, but as a working mother of 3 children ages 5-11 years, this fairly accurately sums up what I’ve been living the past 11 years.

2) lead with their strengths

In addition, parents have been inundated with the news, like Sawyer’s, which highlights all of the negative connotations that the screentime narrative carries. Such news reporting focus on the tool, rather than on the people. They focus on the what, rather than the why, or how. I asked this audience to adopt one of Fred Rogers’ practices for interacting with people: lead with their strengths. I beckoned the audience to tell their children that they recognize the context and that being a parent is hard (it’s always been this way, not just in the age of screens!). I suggested that small things can be modified to help young parents and families shift the ways screen-based tools operate in their worlds. The WHO, the AAP, and the US DOE/HHS all have policy statements with really good advice on how to use screens to build interpersonal relationships and build skills, but they all also focus (I think wrongly) on the number of minutes as a metric for healthy relationships with screens and media.

3) change the policies that will help create the changes you hope for

Finally, I suggested that the 55+ generation arguably has a whole lot of potential to help improve the context in which young parents and families are living. I suggested that those who own businesses consider adding paid birthing/baby bonding time for new parents, that they focus on electing policymakers and lobbying at a national level for more funding for a) parent education, b) safer neighborhoods; and c) more restrictions on the ways in which digital candy is created and marketed so that we have more quality media–Mister Rogers Neighborhood and Sesame Street wouldn’t exist, after all, without the support from the federal government through PBS. I also suggested that they could, if they didn’t already, help out with childcare.

There is no doubt a proliferation of screens and screentime in our world. But scaremongering reporting is not going to make the tool go away, so let’s plan for more strategic, strengths-focused ways to tackle these issues, together.

About the author

Katie Paciga

Katie A. Paciga, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Education at Columbia College Chicago. She studies early language and literacy development and children's media.

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