Hi Dr Justin,
We are a step family, and I have a 6 year old step son who is with us every second weekend. He has become totally addicted to the iPad after a friend introduced him to YouTube videos of grown men playing Call of Duty – Zombies. My husband is sometimes a permissive “Disney dad”, and didn’t think it was an issue, saying that he watched horror movies as a kid (without his parents knowledge) and he turned out fine. My step son shows all the signs of an addict, tantrums, begging, loss of interest in previously enjoyed toys, etc.
My husband and I are finally on the same page that it isn’t good, and he plans to delete the YouTube app, but he said “I’m worried my son will say he doesn’t want to visit me when I put boundaries in place like this.”
How do you parent from a place of tough love rather than fear in a step family, when there is always the fear that the child will refuse to come for their weekend if you don’t pander to them? As the step mum, I can’t impose my way of doing things, I can only support my husband to implement things we agree on together.
Dr Justin responds:
Let’s take a quick look at the issues relating to screens, questions of content, and then we’ll briefly discuss step-parenting.
The evidence around children and screen usage is concerning for any parent who is interested in the health of their children. Research shows that children your son’s age are spending between 4 and 7 hours each day on screens. With so many to choose from it’s no wonder! TV, computers, tablets, and phones all provide endless entertainment and stimulation with next to no effort. Given that our (somewhat outdated) guidelines suggest a maximum of around an hour for children of primary school age, this is an enormous issue.
Why does it matter?
Here is a brief overview of the various issues research tells us that children (and adults) may experience when they overuse screens, compared to those who use screens in appropriate amounts:
- Less quantity and quality sleep
- Lower levels of physical activity
- Fewer social relationships
- Poorer social and emotional connections
- Reduced creativity and curiosity
- Lower levels of school achievement
It is important that we don’t have a total ban on screens though. The bigger issue (for me at least) is the content. I’m quite fine with children spending time on screens for fun – for a limited time. And I’m fine with them spending further time on screens for worthwhile and educational reasons (but not educational games). Some fun time and some work time are both fine, but both should also be kept in moderation.
But the kinds of entertainment content matters.
A big concern for many parents is what their children are viewing online. As time increases in front of screens, so too does the risk that they will come across unsavoury, malicious, or R-rated content. Many adults will claim that they saw this or that as a child and it never hurt them. This line of reasoning is baloney. We can’t actually know whether what we saw as children affected us, or how we might be different. Here is what I mean:
Experimental studies have demonstrated that what we view impacts our thinking, our emotions, and our behaviour. When news stories appear describing how young children have viewed pornography and then enacted what they saw using a sibling or neighbour or someone from school as their ‘partner’; or when kids watch a movie with sword fighting and then race outside to gather sticks and start mimicking what they’ve seen; or when someone plays a violent game and is less likely to offer help or show empathy when compared with those who are not playing such games… both anecdotal evidence and empirical evidence tell an important story: our children are affected by what they view. (And so are we!) Chances are that we actually were affected when we were younger. We just don’t know how, or how things might have been otherwise.
So what can you do as a step-mum?
Step-parents are at an almost insurmountable disadvantage. Asking a child who is not ‘yours’ to behave in a particular way is often met with a seething, “You’re not my parent. You can’t tell me what to do” type of response. The single most important piece of advice I can offer to anyone in a ‘step’ parenting (or co-parenting) environment is to be on the same page as one another. This is often easier said than done (particularly for co-parenting). Here are my tips:
- As adults, discuss the issue before engaging with the child. Take the time to fully understand why something the child is doing is causing challenges to the other parent.
- Explain to one another why you feel the way you do, and suggest possible solutions. (In other words, get on the same page.)
- Make a decision together and then go to the child/children in question. Depending on your relationship with the child, you might go unitedly. If children are older or angrier it may be best that their biological parent speaks with them alone.
- Speak to the child about the issue. Explain what you have decided, but then take the time to discuss why.
- See things from your child’s perspective to be sure you haven’t overlooked anything, and to be certain you are not being insensitive or harsh.
- If there are issues, problem solve together. Ask your child, “what do you think?” and then chat about potential solutions.
- Stay united, supportive, and understanding of both your child and one another.
In an ideal world, everyone (including those in your husband’s previous family with whom you co-parent) will smile understandingly, get on the same page, and work together to raise your children to have healthy relationships with one another and with screens. The reality is that it never works as easily in real life as it does in the advice columns.
Will bad things happen if children get too much screen time? No, not always. However, on average things will almost always work out better for our children’s development, relationships, health, and schooling when we keep our own relationships healthy, use screens in appropriate ways personally, and monitor both the content and the quantity of screen time for our children.