Managing screen time is adding to the mental load of mums

Managing screen time is adding to the mental load of mums

screen time

If there was ever a love/hate relationship in my life, it’s the one I have with screens and digital devices. And it’s not just my own infectious use of them and the social platforms I engage with, it’s also planning for, managing and supervising my 5-year-old daughter’s media consumption.

Managing ‘screentime’ is another quite complex, often confusing item on the ballooning list of things that women have amongst their ‘to-do’ items along with remembering to check in with friends, top up the toilet paper, keep the pets alive – all the while trying to pursue paid work, meet career aspirations and fulfillment. 

From some commentators, young minds on screens are compared to using illicit drugs in sensational headlines about the negative impacts of screens, leaving parents trying to figure out how to use screens in a healthy way.

As the first generation of parents having to contend with this added layer of digital monitoring and mentoring, the job can often fall on mums: especially single mothers (the dominant form of single parenting households in Australia) and those with a second partner at home, with the stats from the Australian Bureau of Statistics finding that women engaged in unpaid care activities already spend an average 4 hours 31 minutes a day on care a day, compared with 3 hours 12 minutes for men.

The screen issues can creep up suddenly, with parents often unprepared and unsupported when it comes to digital wellbeing and literacy strategies for both themselves and their children.

Who is writing the rules on screen time?

Screen-based media use is both a blessing and a guilt-inducing curse for parents, and yep – it’s mothers who are often primarily responsible for creating and implementing their own rulebooks around digital devices.

These plans are regularly based on an adhoc combination of information – gathered from call-outs in Facebook Mums groups, encountering ‘advice’ (ironically) on social media platforms, and from government health directives (which often lack the practical microskills and ready-to-use strategies needed).

Distilling and critically appraising this information, alongside acknowledging and honouring our own sense of ‘what’s best’ for our children and family, can be a significant task. Women can find themselves having to put in more work around building their skills around media literacy, and learning how to tame their own technology habits to model healthy ones to youngsters.

There is no single agreed upon playbook for managing screen use – partly because the use of screens is such a multimodal and multifaceted activity very specific to individuals and families, and partly because this complexity makes it hard to study well. Again, this can leave parents (and so often mothers) with an additional unpaid duty, far more complicated than arranging school holiday activities or helping out with the P&C: that of managing the issues that arise out of children’s media habits. 

These can range from selecting quality age-appropriate content and supervising online activities to deploying software to help avoid exposure to unsuitable material. There there is the feat of transitioning kids off screens when they’ve had their ‘dose’ and the emotional labour of bargaining and negotiating for different games and devices (pro-tip: outsource the due diligence to your kids).

There is no ‘right’ way

We are currently in the process of having to create the recipe for screen time use. Just like with making the best pizza dough or pancakes, we have to wade through the options to get it ‘right’ for our families – even though there is no ‘right’ way, only what works in the most part for you.

The simplistic time-based limits (which were created out of sedentary guidelines) have been virtually impossible to abide by for years as screens show up in the crevices of our lives, colonising everywhere from social spaces to shopping malls. Setting time-based limits is an easy and measurable place to start, but a singular focus on time spent belies the complexity of the screenome – an individual’s use of and experiences with screens that, over time, shape their psychological and social life on devices.

It’s not just how long our kids are using screens, but what they’re using screens for and the content they’re interacting with.

Parents deserve more support and guidance, otherwise they’re driving their family’s digital use in the dark.

Our ‘digital village’ starts with co-parenting and co-caring and extends to our community and collective-  where we create agreements that don’t simply dictate tech-use contracts but that also give young people a voice to co-design their own digital wellbeing plans. Investing collectively in building these skills helps share the mental load, provides insight into how mum’s think and solve problems (role modelled) and builds connection simultaneously.

Start early, talk often

The multifaceted task of managing screen time requires having more collaborative and explicit conversations about screen activities and habits.

Given that many children’s digital footprint starts with a sonogram before they arrive earthside, and on average they will have nearly 1000 photos of them shared online by the time they are 5, it’s never too early to start learning principles of digital wellbeing.

Children are accessing technology earlier and earlier. Starting young with developing these skills and principles sets parents and children up on a journey together for lifelong digital literacy. I would argue that waiting until kids are at school or worse, officially old enough to join Instagram to build the skills and put the guardrails in place is leaving it disastrously late.

It’s not just toddlers using tablets we’re concerned about, it’s our own both incidental and purposeful use that is sometimes referred to like passive smoking for screentime (as if you didn’t have enough to worry about). Kids observe and mimic us, and their nervous systems wire up in parallel to ours, so having the skills and resources to support our own digital wellbeing is a protective factor for our kids.

Ditching the guilt

‘Mothers guilt’ is real and in the context of devices, has been found to increase alongside screen use for recreation.  Ditching guilt is about looking realistically and compassionately at what we are *really* trying to do with limited resources and those stubborn 24 hours in a day.

As Eve Rodsky’s Fair Play framework and quest for chore equity suggests, getting aligned on values and being able to not just ask for, but demand support and co-piloting devices (where this is possible) is a powerful way to feel seen and understood in relationships and community.

Screen time is often a saviour, they can be a staple of modern lives for a good proportion of the population. Feeling like you’re in the ‘screen time sin bin’ is misplaced energy. Instead, feeling empowered to incorporate screens into family life in informed and intentional ways helps with meaningful skills to build digital competencies that your kids will need for their digitally immersed future.

We’re all doing our best in a hyper-connected, on-demand world where the ‘off switch’ has malfunctioned and the wifi is considered essential. Gathering energy, collaborating and proactively planning for our screen habits is a job worth doing.

Jocelyn Brewer’s Screens in Early Childhood program starts on 24 October.


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