Finding Your Family's Tech Happy Spot

Kids and screen time--oh man,  that’s a topic to get parents on their soapboxes, right? Until COVID-related parenting decisions took the top “oh no they didn’t!” slot, tech was probably the topic most likely to scatter parents on the playground. I mean...whew. 

But fellow parents, it’s not just us creating drama around this topic: the media does its part to stir the pot, too. The internet is bursting with information about the best ways to navigate tech with kids. The voices out there range from The American Academy of Pediatrics, with well-researched facts and figures, to mommy bloggers with, well...opinions.   

But before you start stepping on your soapbox about this always-hot topic (and before I pick the brain of our awesome expert), let’s take a moment for empathy, ok? 

There’s a built-in tension around kids and tech choices because the well-being of both kids and parents is at stake. A screen-free childhood before starting school might be ideal for kids. But their parents? Well, they miss a valuable opportunity for rest. Offering substantial screen time might be ideal for parents. But those kids? They’ll be breaking every recommendation from the AAP.  

Rock and a hard place much? Let’s all agree to be gentle with each other as we figure this out, ok?

Here’s the good news: it is possible (really!) for your family to find your “tech happy spot”—a balance of what’s good for kids’ brains and what’s helpful for parents. Here to offer an approach is Kate Melillo M.Ed, CCC-SLP, who works with her husband, Dr. Cory Clark LLMHC, NCC, BC-TMH to help kids and families navigate tech decisions. Kate’s an expert and a mom. In other words, she gets it. On several levels, in fact! 

Below is a quick interview with her that will offer you some serious food for thought...and a couple “go do this” action items to make your family’s relationship with screens happier--both now and for the long game. 

Kathryn: Ok, Kate, what’s the best way to introduce kids to technology? 

Kate: Honestly, most people don’t think about how to do it best--it happens by accident! Maybe a kid is being very needy at the store or just needs to be distracted for a second. The parents might say, “Just look at my phone for a minute” to remedy the situation and...that’s it. That’s the gateway. The other way tech is often introduced is through some sort of gift. In both those situations, the introduction has happened, like it or not, so then parents have to make a plan. 

If your family is deliberate about the decision, though, consider when technology will be important for learning. If you’re about to send your child to the public school system, they will use screens for learning, and they should have some idea how to use it. 

Regardless of how tech comes into your family, remember the AAP guidelines: no screens (except video calls) from birth to 18-24 months. Then an hour or less a day for kids ages 2-5, a limit that really extends until middle school. But of course, this doesn’t happen when you take into account the screens they use at school. 

Kathryn: Right. Technology and screens are hard to avoid once kids are in school. So how can we keep our family in a tech space that’s healthy for kids while still giving adults the occasional break that screen time offers? 

Kate: There is a sweet spot, but it’s hard to know what’s happening inside kids’ brains without some trial and error! But behavior is the tell-all, so here’s what I recommend: notice how your child’s behavior changes after screen time. Remember, the tablet or TV gives your child lots of hits of dopamine--dopamine neurotransmitters boost your child’s anticipation of a positive experience and they will want more. When the tablet or TV is taken away, those dopamine levels drop and behavior can change. The sweet spot is when your child can easily come off the tablet without a big drop in dopamine and behavior change. 

Kathryn: Oh, that’s helpful! So what can parents experiment with when they’re figuring out their sweet spot? 

Kate: The first thing is to remember there’s actual brain chemistry occurring, and lots of factors influence that chemistry. So change up the duration of screen time, of course, to suit what fits your child’s needs. But also think about time of day, location (don’t put screens in the bedroom!), the kind of technology, and even who’s around during screen time. All those variables can change your child’s behavior, and finding the sweet spot for your family takes tracking, monitoring, and patience. You’ve got to think about the long game! 

Thank you, Kate, for your wisdom! 

Parents, we’re here for you as you navigate screen time with kids. As Kate pointed out, there’s goodness to be had there--but it’s different for every family, and it takes a while to sort it all out. That said, it’s worth the work to find your family’s “tech sweet spot”--both for your kids’ good and your own. You got this!