How can we get our kids to put down their phones when they see us on ours so often?
A 2016 survey by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit children’s advocacy and media ratings organization, asked almost 1,800 parents of children aged 8 to 18 about screen time and electronic media use by the parents. The average amount of time that parents spent with screen media of all kinds (computers, TVs, smartphones, e-readers) every day: 9 hours and 22 minutes. And on average, only an hour and 39 minutes of that was work-related; 7 hours and 43 minutes were personal.
Maybe that’s one reason you hear more and more often the recommendation that families delineate specific screen-free times and places in their lives. James P. Steyer, the chief executive of Common Sense Media, cited the idea of “sacred spaces” advocated by Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the 2015 book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.”
It’s just as important to regulate our own use of devices and put them aside for screen-free periods as it is to ask our children to disconnect. And it certainly adds spice to family life if children understand that the same rules apply for all ages: that Dad will get grief for surreptitiously checking his phone under the dinner table and Mom has to park hers in the designated recharging zone for the night just as the children do.
Here are my own top five sacred spaces, but I’ll tell you frankly that they’re very much “aspirational” for me; I have a long way to go before I’m a good example.
1. In the Bed
Keeping TVs out of children’s bedrooms and bedtimes is an old pediatric recommendation from back in the day when TV was the screen we worried about most. Now we also stress keeping smartphones out of their beds, but many of us as adults also struggle with this imperative, which pretty much everyone agrees is critical for improved sleep and therefore improved health. Those of us with children out of the home, of course, tell ourselves that the phone has to come into the bedroom in case a child needs to call — but the phone can sleep on the other side of the room, not on the night stand.
2. At the Table
If the family gathers around the dinner table, basic table manners dictate no digital participants. And yes, that means parents get in trouble if they lapse, and you don’t get to use the old let-me-just-Google-this-important-and-educational-fact strategy to settle family debates and questions of history, literature, or old movie trivia, because everyone knows what else you’ll do once you take out the phone.
3. Reading a Book
I don’t read books well if I’m toggling back and forth to email. That’s O.K. for other kinds of reading, maybe, but not for books. If you made a New Year’s resolution to read more books or you’re going to try for family reading time, you can allow e-readers, but you might keep other screens at a distance.
4. In the Outdoors
It’s definitely worth picking some outdoor experiences that are going to be screen-free. One of the dangers of carrying our screens with us wherever we go is that wherever we go, the landscape is the same — it’s a conscious decision to go outside and see what there is to see, even if that means losing the chance to take a photo now and then. It may also work to put phones on airplane mode for travel and family activities, so they can be used only as cameras – or for maps or emergency calls if needed.
5. In the Car
This is a tougher one for many families, since screens in the car can be so helpful on long rides, especially with siblings in proximity. But time in the car can also be remarkably intimate family time (yes, I know, not always in a good way). Some of the most unguarded conversations of the middle school and adolescent years take place when a parent is chauffeuring, so it’s probably worth trying for some designated screenless miles. I assume that I don’t have to say that the driver should not be looking at a screen — but the parent riding shotgun in the front also has to play by the rules.
Mr. Steyer said his organization’s survey showed that parents are paying attention to the ways that their children use screen media, and that they see it as their responsibility to monitor and regulate their children’s use of technology. In fact, two-thirds of the parents felt that such monitoring was more important than respecting their children’s privacy.
Parents’ role has to include awareness and also a willingness to “use media and technology together whenever you can,” Mr. Steyer said; “it’s good for parents to watch and play and listen with their kids and experience media and technology with them and ask them questions about what they see and hear.”
In a new policy on screen media use by school-age children and adolescents released last October, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that families develop and regularly update a family media use plan, using an online tool that takes into account the individual family’s patterns and goals and lets you designate screen-free times and places. That can be helpful for screen-loving children and for their screen-loving parents as well.