Screen Time and Family Life

In this post, we discussed the different recommendations for children’s digital media use as well as some models to use when considering your child’s screen use. Here we are going to talk about family life in the digital age. Screens don’t have to negatively affect family life. Digital media can actually work to bring everyone together.

Your screen use changes how your family life is. It can be for the better, but it can also be for the worse. We typically hear about the latter.  Actually, because of the experience I had with my family’s media use growing up, it took me awhile to believe that screen time can bring families together.

I will briefly share my experience. Screen use at my home growing up took us away from each other. I didn’t see what was going on and perhaps my parents didn’t either. But, it happened. I remember there being at least four TVs in our home, one that was in my sister’s and my room. We had a TV in our kitchen, and we would watch the news while we ate. But it was only my mom and sisters. My dad would take his food to my parent’s room to watch something else and eat. He pretty much stayed in there for the evening. I still remember one day that we kids decided we wanted to watch something other than the news and left our mom at the kitchen table to eat in the living room while we had dinner. My mom had looked so dejected. I felt bad, but we still did it anyway.

When computers became accessible our family purchased one. Now instead of just watching TV all the time, my dad was on the computer, too. Us kids played computer games which weren’t completely bad. I mean, we played Duke Nukem but also Reading Rabbit. But the family didn’t always spend time together doing all of this media consumption. Worse still is that we rarely spent time together period.

We always approach topics biased, perhaps unintentionally, because of our history. Because of my occupation I decided to read a book called Becoming a Media Mentor: A Guide for Working with Children and Families by Claudia Haines, Can Campbell, Chip Donahue and ALSC and it literally caused me to have a complete 180 in my view. Before I read the book, it was really hard for me to even consider there being benefits to screen time for family life because of my experience while growing up. But after “checking at the door” the experiences I had growing up and reading that book, I realized that screen time can work positively. But, it begins with a commitment, and believe me, I am committed to ensure that as a family our screen time will not suck us away from each other.

Use Screen Time Mindfully

For a family to be brought together through the use of digital media it requires the adults in the family to be thoughtful and intentional with screen time, even with their own personal use. The younger ones in a family will learn from the older ones and mimic what they do. Do you have times when you tuck away devices? If not, then you may want to consider doing that to show your children that you (and eventually they) can stop using it and that screens don’t mean more than they do.

This next statement may sound shocking but it is true. Families should embrace technology with their children. Screens are all around us. Most of us use screens for our jobs. It is inevitable that our kids will encounter it and use it in school and life. Why not, in your family, introduce technology to your children? Family members can help guide younger ones in using screen time. As a child is learning to write or to read, we openly encourage coloring and book handling to help her on the journey to master those skills. Likewise, families can help their children learn to handle technology to eventually become digital media literate.

Remember that the amount of time exposed to technology does not mean it is quality time spent. How do we make screen time meaningful? Use screens as one format to help your child foster a better understanding of the world and the people in it. Also, remember to engage in the media with them. Don’t let the thought (as I did!) that digital media is something that a child can do independently of you. Use it as a way to bring you together.

As your child gets older, just like with playing, reading and other activities, your child isn’t going to always need you. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop interacting together with it. Don’t stop reading aloud to your middle school-er and don’t stop playing virtual games or watching a movie together. Digital media is a tool at your disposable to bring your family together.

How to Use Digital Media to bring Your Family closer

Here are a few tips about using technology as a family. Remember, digital media exist to help you. Use screen time mindfully and in a balanced way. Digital media can be helpful in strengthening your family when it is used in moderation and with purpose.

Use Skype/FaceTime-like Apps. Like never before (and for better or worse!), interacting with relatives is so easy, even relatives across the globe. And it’s all thanks to video chatting. Many researchers, such as AAP, say that a baby or young child engaging in a video chat is not the same as engaging in watching a cartoon. Video chatting allows for instant interaction and response. I mean, you use it to engage in conversation that is two-way. A baby babbling to a YouTube video isn’t the same as babbling to her grandma in China during a Skype visit!

Tea with Grandpa by Barney Saltzberg is a perfect example of how screens can bring families together via video chatting. This is a story about a young girl having one of her daily teas with her grandfather. It isn’t until the very end the reader sees that they are using a computer to have tea! Very touching.

Use it to help build your child’s literacy. Using screens to help your child develop his literacy skills may seem a no-brainer. I always encourage people to write out the words their children say so they see that spoken word can be written. But I never thought about using Siri for the same thing until my son’s toddler teacher told me. Show your child Siri (if she hasn’t already figured it out!) and reread the words that came up to emphasize the text.

You can even purchase a recorder or storytelling app to have your child record a made-up story. Not only will it be fun for your child to hear his own voice during a play back, but you are also helping your child develop his narrative skills (i.e., his ability to explain situations). You can also use a recorder app to have a distant relative tell a story so the child can hear a family story.

eBooks are another avenue families can use. Just like with print books, eBooks are for reading and enjoying. Try to avoid eBooks that have more than text and a read-aloud function. With less bells and whistles, so to speak, your child will focus more on the story at hand than being overstimulated. Also, sit down and enjoy the eBook together. Just because it has a read-aloud function does not mean the child should fly solo. Engage in the reading as you would in a print book, asking questions and pointing out things in the story.

Simple things like these can help foster not only literacy skills, but also a togetherness in your family.

Focus on interactive apps. Interactive media begs to be used with a guide, that is you. While a lot of technology is called “educational,” “user-friendly” or “intuitive,” much of the higher quality apps or games need someone to help along the way to make them less frustrating. Finding the way to exit an app may be difficult and most children will need encouragement to keep going when a rough bump (just like using a physical puzzle!) in doing an app. These are just a few reasons why an adult or older sibling can help make the app time successful and meaningful.

A screen shot from an excellent (and it’s free with no ads!) app called “Peek-a-Zoo.”

As with eBooks, apps with less bells and whistles, the better. Apps with a lot going on can be highly distracting and overstimulating for a child. You also need to be careful with free apps. They typically have clickable ads that a child can accidentally pick and get lost in (especially if you aren’t with her while she plays). Pick apps where interaction is the crux.

Need help finding an app? Check out Madison Public Library’s AppFinder. It is where I located the above “Peek-a-Zoo.” You can search by level of cost, age and platform. 

Watch age appropriate shows together. We all do it and I try not to do it, but you know it happens: we use shows as a way to occupy our child while we get things done. Trying to reverse this habit is difficult, but I am currently working on it myself, setting time limits and trying to watch more shows with my son. Do a family weekly movie night (but not too close to your child’s sleep time as screens can negatively affect sleep) where you watch a show or movie that is age appropriate.


How do you use screens with your family? I hope we use more apps with our son. We currently use a free app (and ad free!) I discovered called Peek-a-Zoo. Theo loves it.

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