School-Year Screen-Time Rules from a Teacher

SCHOOL-YEAR SCREEN-TIME RULES FROM A TEACHER

Rebecca Young

Take it from a middle school teacher and mom: Kids need to manage their online activities — and parents need to help them do it.

This article is part of Common Sense Media’s Parent Voices series, which provides a platform for opinions about parenting in the digital age. All ideas expressed are the writer’s own.

Last year Fortnite invaded my middle school classroom — as I believe it did to middle school classrooms across the country. Students who were usually on task and high-performing were nodding off and “forgetting” to do their homework. The morning conversations about how late they stayed up or who was the last man standing became part of our early morning check-ins. Then the phone calls with parents started: Over several months, I had numerous telephone and after-school meetings with parents concerned about their kids’ performance. When I brought up screen time, there were a range of reactions. Some parents seemed oblivious as to what their children were doing after hours, some didn’t know how to rein in screen time, and some thought they had it all under control — but clearly did not.

I get it. I’m not just a teacher: I’m a mom who struggles with screen time, too. I spent last summer trying to keep my own middle school daughter unplugged in the rural English countryside. After the first week, when the iPad started appearing little by little, I tried to use my own advice — “However much you read is how much screen time you get” — and reasoning, “Make sure you balance your learning games with your other games.” But then I’d hear my daughter yelling at a friend who’d just left her online game, and I’d feel like I’d lost the battle.

The thing is, I’m not anti-screen. I’ve seen technology bring some amazing teaching momentsto my classroom — and to my own life. One student, whom I could never get to write a complete sentence on paper, wrote the most heartfelt poem about how he “nearly won” in Fortnite. It became his breakthrough, and he hasn’t stopped writing since. Other kids made parallels to the dystopian books they were reading and wrote very poignant compare-and-contrast papers to prove their points. And, far away from her friends in the United States, my daughter was able to stay in touch with her friends online, keep herself occupied with Roblox, and feel a part of pop culture by watching every Miranda Sings video ever made.

Those breakthrough moments of connection, creativity, and critical thinking are what I strive for as a teacher and a mother. What it tells me is that however parents handle the management of their kids’ screen time, it really does have to be a balance. And knowing middle school kids as well as I do, I know that they aren’t always able to shut down Fortnite or YouTube without the guidance and support of their parents. I’ve also discovered that tech is never going to be a one-size-fits-all thing. What works for some kids will not work for others. Finding what is best for your family can involve a bit of trial and error.

These are the strategies that worked for many of my parents last year and that I’m sure I will be trying with my middle schooler this year:

Be present. Know what your child is playing and when. That seems simple, but it is so important. So many of my parents last year had no idea that their child was staying up until all hours in the morning playing games. I heard more than once, “I have never had to worry about their screen use. They have been so good up until now.” I remind them that this is middle school, they are not bad kids, and they are just testing the boundaries — so set them!

Control the Wi-Fi. I touched base with some of my parents after their children made improvements in class, and I found that they had put in place simple household internet controls. The kids had passwords to access the internet, and the parents put a time limit on when the password could be used. Please note that a few of my tech-savvy kids confided that they were able to “override” this function.

Remove the temptation. Some families took all screens out of the children’s bedrooms and stored cellphones in a locked charging box until morning. This might seem extreme, but I know for at least one of my students this worked. He was struggling socially and trying so hard to fit in with a certain crowd. He later acknowledged that he needed help — beyond the gaming community.

Parental-control apps. I’ve had students tell their parents that they have online homework to do and then end up playing a game instead. Parental-control apps can help, but it takes some research to find the right one for your needs. Making the homework space at the dining room table or another central location can make it easier to keep an eye on kids, too.

Balance. Kids need downtime. I have these hormonal, opinionated, stressed-out middle schoolers for two hours a day, and I push them. I know that the other teachers at my school also carry high expectations. Finding time to completely unplug is important. One parent told me today that they have a hard rule of no screen time except for homework on weekdays, and the way to lose weekend play time is by breaking that rule. I personally allow weekday screen time, but I reserve the right to change my mind.

How to Talk to Kids About Violence, Crime, and War

HOW TO TALK TO KIDS ABOUT VIOLENCE, CRIME, AND WAR

Caroline Knoor

Exposure to graphic images, distressing information, and horrific headlines can affect kids’ overall well-being.

Mass shootings. Nuclear weapons. A robbery at your local corner store. Where do you start when you have to explain this stuff to your kids? Today, issues involving violence, crime, and war — whether they’re in popular shows, video games, books, or news coverage — reach even the youngest kids. And with wall-to-wall TV coverage, constant social media updates, streaming services that broadcast age-inappropriate content any time of day, plus the internet itself, you have to have a plan for discussing even the worst of the worst in a way that’s age-appropriate, that helps kids understand, and that doesn’t cause more harm.

We know that heavy exposure to media violence, such as first-person-shooter games and cinematic explosions, can negatively affect kids. We also know that kids report feeling afraid, angry, or depressed about the news. But in recent years — prompted by increased terrorist attacks around the world — researchers are exploring the effects of “remote exposure” to real violent events. Remote exposure is when kids understand that something traumatic has occurred but haven’t experienced it directly. Unsurprisingly, its lingering effects include feelings of grief, trauma, fear, and other mental health concerns. Kids can be deeply affected by images of war-torn countries, bloodied refugee children, and mass graves and need additional help processing them. 

These tips and conversation starters can help you talk to kids of different ages about the toughest topics. Get more advice about explaining distressing newsdifficult subjects, and sexual harassment.

Tips for talking to kids about violence, crime, and war

Age 2–6

Avoid discussion of or exposure to really horrific news. As much as possible, wait until after young kids are in bed to watch the news, and save conversations about heinous subjects, such as Charles Manson or the latest Dateline murder mystery, for child-free moments.

Don’t bring it up — unless you think they know something. There’s no reason to bring up school shootings, terrorist attacks, threats of war, or the like with young kids. If you suspect they do know something — for example, you hear them talking about it during their play — you can ask them about it and see if it’s something that needs further discussion.

Affirm that your family’s safe. In the case of scary news, such as wilderness fires — even if you’re a little rattled — it’s important for young children to know they’re safe, their family is OK, and someone is taking care of the problem. Hugs and snuggles do wonders, too.

Simplify complex ideas — and move on. Abstract ideas can complicate matters and may even scare young kids. Use concrete terms and familiar references your kid will understand, and try not to overexplain. About a mass shooting, say, “A man who was very, very confused and angry took a gun and shot people. The police are working to make sure people are safe.”

Distinguish between “real” and “pretend.” Young kids have rich fantasy lives and mix up make-believe and reality. They may ask you if a scary story is really true. Be honest, but don’t belabor a point.

Age 7–12

Wait and see. Unless they ask, you know they were exposed, or you think they know something, don’t feel you have to discuss horrific news or explain heinous crimes such as rape, beheadings, dismemberment, and drug-fueled rampages (especially to kids in the younger end of this age range or who are sensitive). If kids show signs of distress by acting anxious, regressing, or exhibiting some other tip-off that something’s amiss — for example, they’re reluctant to go to school after the latest school shooting — approach them and invite them to talk.

Talk … and listen. Older tweens hear about issues related to violence, crime, and war on social media, YouTube, TV, and movies — not always reliable sources for facts. Try to get a sense of what your kids know before launching into an explanation, since you don’t want to distress them further or open up a whole new can of worms. Feel them out by asking, “What did you hear?,” “Where did you hear that?,” “What do you know about it?,” and “What do you think about it?”

Be honest and direct. Tweens can find out what they want to know from different sources, and you want the truth to come from you. It’s not necessary to go into extreme detail. About a family who held their kids hostage, you can say, “The kids suffered many different kinds of abuse. But they were rescued, and their parents were arrested. Often in cases of child abuse, the parents are very sick with mental illness or other issues.”

Discuss sensationalism in news and media. Talk to kids about how media outlets — including news agencies, TV shows, movie companies, and game developers — use extreme subjects to get attention, whether it’s in the form of clicks, viewership, or ticket sales. Share the old newsroom adage, “If it bleeds, it leads,” and talk about why we may be drawn to outrageous human behavior. This helps kids think critically about the relative importance of issues, the words and images used to attract an audience, and their own media choices.

Explain context and offer perspective. With your life experience, knowledge, and wisdom, you can explain the various circumstances around certain issues. This is the process that gives things meaning and clarity — and it’s important for kids to be able to make sense of negative and unpleasant things, too. To work through the powerful emotions that images of beatings, blood, and human suffering can bring up, kids have to learn to distance themselves from horrific events, understand the underlying causes, and perhaps get involved in meaningful ways to make things better, such as diplomacy and education.

Teens

Assume they know — but don’t assume their knowledge is complete. Teens get a lot of their information from online sources such as social media or YouTube, which can be misleading or flawed. Still, it’s important to respect their knowledge and ability to learn things independently because that’s a process you want to foster. You’ll still need to fill in the blanks, offer some history, and share what you know.

Get them talking. High school years can be tough, as teens start rejecting their parents’ ideas, becoming concerned with what friends think, and developing their own voice. This separation can be especially difficult when traumatic events occur or when you know they’re interacting with mature media. To continue the kinds of conversations you had when they were younger — and stay connected and relevant — resist the urge to lecture and instead ask their opinions about things. Encourage them to support their ideas with legitimate news sources, not just repeat what others have said. Say, “We may not always agree, but I’m curious to hear what you have to say.”

Accept their sources, but expand their horizons. Trending topics capture the headlines, but teens are just as likely to run across provocative subjects, stories, and characters on TV and in movies — such as the meth-making chemistry teacher of Breaking Bad — that get users clicking, viewing, and sharing. Give teens the tools to view information critically, whether they’re scrolling through Snapchat, Netflix or a free-speech site for extremists such as 4chan and 8chan. Teach them to question what they see by asking themselves, “Who made this?,” “Why did they make it?,” “What’s its point of view?,” “What information isn’t included?,” and “What would my friends think of this?” These media-literacy questions help teens evaluate information, think beyond the clickbait headline or funny meme, and look more deeply into a topic.

Offer hope. Mood swings are the hallmark of the teen years. But exposure to sad and depressing news, as well as to issues like violence, crime, and war, through social media, video games, and movies can make teens world-weary. Don’t be a Pollyanna (teens will see through that), but talk about meaningful ways to contribute something to the world — anything that benefits the greater good. The idea that you can make a positive impact restores the soul and boosts the resilience they’ll need their whole lives.

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