Is Modeling Screen Time a Myth?

Parents are a child’s first model. Does that work with screens as well? Screenagers explore if this is true or a myth below:

For years parents have said to me, “I know I am part of the problem. I should be modeling screen time better.” 

I first respond by validating them in some way, such as, “It is really great that you are thinking and talking about this issue of modeling screen time. It is so important.”

Then, my next response often surprises them. Rather than say something like, “Yes, yes, I know we all need to do that better,” I gently point out that there is a major problem with the goal of “trying to model better” — the problem lies in the ambiguity of the goal — ambiguous goals never go well. 

So much of what I do as a doctor is helping patients recognize and try to change unhealthy behaviors. Issues around behavior change are something I have been fascinated with and researching for years. One fundamental aspect of behavior change is choosing a definable and reasonable goal. 

So to parents, I say, rather than having a vague goal like, “I should model screen time better,” pick a specific goal, and then model how you are going to try to reach that goal. Helping youth learn skills around behavior change through one’s own efforts is such a valuable gift to them. 

For example, I had a habit of reflexively going onto my laptop to work after dinner. Did I really want to do that almost every night of the week? No, I didn’t. Furthermore, I did not want to model this for my kids. 

I wanted to change my behavior. So, I decided that every Tuesday I would try to not go back on screens after dinner, and, instead, treat myself to a creative and relaxing evening. I wanted to make earrings and be more available to my family. On the first Tuesday, I completely forgot, and automatically went on my computer. The next Tuesday, I did not do enough prep, so I still had emails I needed to write. 

When I failed on those first few Tuesdays, I shared my failure with my kids. I told them about my setbacks, and the actions I would do to try to prevent future failures. After the first week, I put a big reminder on the refrigerator. For the second week, I put a note on Tuesday morning’s to-do list to finish all emails before dinner. 

We were all able to laugh at my setbacks, and I was happy to ask them to help me remember my goal.

A goal can be even something like changing the type of shows one decides to watch. Last week, for example, my husband announced to the family that he decided to stop watching the crime-drama, Ozark. He told us the reason he was stopping was that it was adding to his feelings of the bleakness about the world. He said that he didn’t like how the show made him root for people that he did not feel good about cheering for. So, to replace that activity, he planned to start a new book. 

Examples of parents setting specific goals

Over the years, parents have told me about screen time behavior changes they wanted to make. They told me variations of the examples I give here. 

After checking my email, my goal is to turn off the Wifi on my computer for 1 hour each weekday morning, so I can get my writing done and not get tempted to check my email. 

I am going to try to resist checking my phone when we are setting up for dinner and at the table, so I get to talk with my family in a more connected way.

My goal is to take a full weekend off of screens one weekend this month and see how I feel afterward. 

I plan to no longer have my phone in my room at night, just like I have decided I don’t want my teens to have theirs. 

I plan to delete my favorite sports app off my phone because I check it too often. I want to see if I can keep it off permanently and only look up sports on my computer. 

A model for effective behavior change that I love

If you have a change that you would consider announcing and trying, there is a model for behavior change I love in Joshua Klapow’s book, “Living Smart.” 

The one from Living Smart goes like this:

S = Set a reasonable small, and actionable goal.

M = Monitor your progress by doing something like noting on a calendar each time you succeed.

A = Arrange for success like I did when I put my beading tray on the kitchen table Tuesday mornings. I knew exactly where it was, and I was ready to go that evening when my screen-free night arrived. 

R = Recruit people to help hold you accountable. I told my kids, husband, and some friends about my goal and asked them to ask me about it now and then. Wanting the ego lift of being able to report success, gave me some extra motivation. Honestly, though, knowing my kids were witnesses to my attempts was the strongest motivation. When I slipped-up, I asked them for their suggestions of what I could do, and they loved giving me advice. 

T = Treat. My favorite part! Choose a personal reward you value, like having a special dessert. All the data shows that sustained behavior change comes when we get rewards for our change. For example, if one does not like the gym where they do the elliptical, over time, they will stop going. But if they allow themselves to watch their favorite show, only when they are on the elliptical, it can be enough of a reward that they stick with it. Or, they get the reward that they actually start to enjoy the movement of an elliptical. 

I don’t mean to say in this blog that modeling screen time is not important or doable — of course, it is both important and doable. But modeling is complex and is a superb topic to be discussing with your kids. Let me give you an example. If a family has a rule that devices are put away at mealtime, it would be a real disconnect if a parent sat on their phone night after night at dinner. If now, and then, the parent has to step away from dinner for an urgent work call, then ideally the parent would say something like, “I am sorry, I have to take this call for work — but I will tell them I will call them back shortly.” This parent is doing a great job of modeling even though they have actually “broken the rule.”

And how did it turn out for me on Tuesday nights? The habit did take hold for a couple of months, and then I decided that I didn’t want to do it anymore. I do continue to work to take nights off from my screen though. 

Ideas for conversation starters:

  1. How do I model screen time? What messages do my actions with my devices signal to you?
  2. Have you seen me try to change a habit, screen time, or others?
  3. What do you think of the SMART approach to behavior change?
  4. Is there anything around my screen time habits that you think I should consider changing? 

Fake Identities and Real Concerns

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This weekend I was hit hard by a disturbing article in The New York Times (NYT) about kids targeted by sexual predators via direct chats and in multiplayer video game chat rooms.

In a chat, people with bad intentions can pretend to be any age. They can say they are a friend-of-a-friend as a way to enter the chat. Children are susceptible because they are unsuspecting, and by the time they may realize something is not right, shame and threats may already be in place to keep them quiet and scared. 

People have been reporting problems much more frequently than just a few years ago. According to The New York Times article: “Six years ago, a little over 50 reports of the crimes, commonly known as “sextortion,” were referred to the federally designated clearinghouse in suburban Washington that tracks online child sexual abuse. Last year, the center received over 1,500. And the authorities believe that the vast majority of sextortion cases are never reported.”

These predators connect to kids who play games like Minecraft, Fortnite, and any game that has a chat function, slowly “grooming” their victims (“grooming” is such a creepy word—which is fitting— and refers to a perpetrator working to gain a child’s trust with the intent of doing sex related crimes).

 Things to know:

  1. Criminals pretend to be teens and start conversations. I learned from the NYT article that often they pretend to have emotional hardships and use that as a way of building the relationship. I find this so disturbing. 
  2. They might buy gaming currency, like Fortnite V-Bucks, for the kids.
  3. Their goal is to try to get sexually explicit photos and videos to use as blackmail for more imagery.

This kind of extortion happens with many games. A Seattle man was convicted for posing as a teen and getting explicit photos from boys via Minecraft and League of Legends. 

The NYT article reports how Roblox, a game for small children, allows players to chat with others. Youth are socializing online through the chat functions on the games themselves but also on third-party chat sites like Discord and Omegle (whose tagline is Talk to Strangers), where interacting with strangers is the norm. Discord is a chat feature with text, video, and voice chat to meet up “live” while gaming. Once predators establish a “trusted-relationship” in an open space chat room, they will try to move these interactions to private conversations on platforms like Kik and Facebook Messenger. 

As parents, teachers, and counselors, let’s be proactive by having conversations about warning signs and red flag behaviors before our youth get targeted. It is critical to consider how we can engage our kids in productive conversations, without making them too anxious and without coming off as too anxious ourselves. 

  1. Being strategic with our kids when we talk to them about these topics is vital. Start a conversation with the assumption that your child is doing the things you have asked, such as only interacting with people online that they know in real life. But then, verify, using a tone that assures them that your main goal is to reinforce safety, not impose punishment. (Yes, there may be consequences, but when they tell us the truth, praise them, rather than focus on the breaching of a rule. This way you will get more honesty in the future.) 
  2. We don’t want them to think we think this is happening everywhere and all the time. It’s not. But it is about letting them know that this is a risk and we need to all work together to think deeply about how we prevent and stop suspicious activity.
  3. These risks are serious, and can even be life-threatening. I spent time with Carol Todd whose daughter Amanda tragically died by suicide after ongoing, online sextortion. It was an awful story that you may have heard about. When I visited her in Canada, we talked for hours. She showed me her daughter’s room. We hugged and shed tears. She has done tremendous advocacy work for online safety and mental health and I was happy to be able to help in one of her advocacy activities years ago. She is a true hero of mine. (The adult man who was doing the sextortion is behind bars.)
  4. Something I find helpful is to foster a discussion about these topics with your kid and someone they play video games with, and that person’s parent. Start a conversation about these topics, working to engage the youth. Try to shift the conversation from what they are playing to the more significant discussion around the issues, all the while weaving in the points you are trying to convey. You might say something like, “I imagine the parents of such and such kid were so glad their child told them what was going on. I know the parent might have wanted to throw away all their games, but hopefully, instead, they talked about how to find balance and safety so that safe gaming could still happen.” 
  5. Talk to other parents. It’s so important to find out ways they are trying to promote safe video games too.
  6. Take some time to learn about the games your kids are playing, and about the chatting apps. Then, let your kids know the type of info that you have gleaned and ask if what you learned sounds accurate or not. 
  7. And SO IMPORTANT, occasionally play video games with your kids. Participating is a great way to see what is happening in chats. They might not want you to play because there can be swearing and such, but if you say to them, something like, “I know there may be language I don’t like, but I promise to hold my tongue. I want to look through a small window into your video game life because I know it means a lot to you.”

Here are a few questions to get the conversation started:

  1. Do you like to “chat” while you game?
  2. How do you determine with whom you chat?
  3. If you are in a group chat and someone invites someone you don’t know, how do you make sure they are who they say they are?
  4. On social media, how much chatting happens with people that people don’t really know? 
  5. Question for youth:  If you were leading a group of younger than you students in a discussion about this topic of online safety and chat situations, what would you say to them. ** If your teen would be willing to share this with me, I would love to hear it, and with permission, anonymously post.