Supporting Healthy Media Use

A mom I know is struggling with the amount of time her 7 and 10 year olds are online. They spend their school day in virtual classes and then another 2 or 3 hours watching YouTube videos and streaming TV shows. Her older child also likes to play games on his phone. Every couple of weeks, she poses questions to her social media hive, looking to crowdsource ideas for managing her kids’ screen time. She laments the ‘new normal’ that leaves her feeling like a bad parent.

Studies show that 2-3 hours of recreational screen time a day are typical for children this age. Much of that time is spent watching videos, streaming television shows and movies, or reading ebooks. Gaming, both in apps and on gaming systems, is also popular. Researchers aren’t especially concerned about the amount of time spent online, as children pre-internet spent a similar amount of time watching television. What does raise concern are the same issues that also troubled child development specialists about TV watching in general: children’s passive consumption of media content and their vulnerability to commercial ‘influencers’.

The advantage that digital media offers over traditional television is that children can use digital tools to create their own content in addition to consuming what others have created. They can

  • record videos with their phones and edit them into short films
  • design photo boards that mimic scrapbook pages with digital enhancements
  • create voiceover book and product reviews
  • produce their own public service announcements to educate viewers about social issues that matter to them.

These kinds of activities stimulate creativity and affirm their ability to speak up and speak out.

Given that digital media use is widespread, imitates longstanding trends of passive media engagement, and offers creative potential, I asked Amanda LaTasha Armstrong, who studies children’s media use, what those of us who support families could do to help parents and caregivers encourage healthy media use at home. She gave me 3 pieces of advice:

  1. Curate a list of digital content for families on specific topics. Parents like my mom friend would feel less anxious about their children’s screentime if they know the content their kids are viewing comes from trusted sources. This curated list should include various types of media popular with children, particularly providers of online videos, popular programming, and mobile apps.
  2. Host workshops that help children and families learn how to create media online. Start with a series on how to create videos or animations, since these are the most common types of online media consumed by children under 12. You might even develop a community project (or competition) and invite submissions from local families that feature children’s digital creations.
  3. When you communicate with families, do so in a video format. Keep your message short and use animation or simple visual effects to draw in young viewers. Invite families to respond occasionally with video communications of their own. Better yet, outsource creation of your video announcements to children and their families.

Especially during a pandemic that limits what children can do outside the home, addressing parents’ concerns about online recreational activities helps alleviate a big stressor in contemporary family life. Pick one or all three of Armstrong’s suggestions to implement, as your time and resources allow. All those anxious moms on social media will thank you.



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