Digital Well-Being Guidelines for Parents During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Overview

In this unprecedented time, technology has become part of our social fabric in a deeper, more intimate way than ever before. For many of us, technology has been a social lifeline. Unfortunately, our increased reliance on technology doesn’t diminish the challenges and dangers it poses.

We offer these family guidelines with the hope that they will help parents navigate the use of technology at home and in school.

Digital Well-Being Guidelines

🧘‍♀️ Feel Into It
Let’s be aware of not just our use, but how technology makes us feel.

Take the time to reflect on how it’s working or not working with your well-being. Ask yourself and your children not just “do you like X app or game,” but “how does this app or game make you feel, during and after use?” You might learn a lot through this exploration.


Questions to ask ourselves:

  • What thought, feeling, or impulse led you to pick up your device?
  • As you scroll through your feed, what kind of thoughts come up?
  • What kind of emotions come up?
  • What happens to your breathing?
  • How does your heart feel?
🧠 Be “Why's”
Make an effort to use technology as a tool instead of an end in itself. When using technology, let’s communicate the “why” to our children and ask them to communicate theirs.

“I’m picking up my phone to send your mom something she needs for her doctor’s appointment, I’ll put it down right after I send the message.” “I know I’m on my computer a lot today, but I’m working. This screentime is how our family puts food on the table.”

It’s hard to have a healthy relationship with technology, and you likely won’t be able to communicate, or use it intentionally all the time. Admitting when we’ve fallen into the mindless rabbit hole is not only okay, but can also set a good example of sharing honestly and acknowledging the difficulty.


Questions to ask ourselves:

  • Why am I reaching for my device?
  • How is this technology really enhancing my life?
  • Is this technology serving as a successful substitute for something lacking during the pandemic (i.e. exercise or education)?
  • Am I being a tech role model?
  • When I am mindlessly using technology, am I taking ownership of that with my family?
📱 All Screen-Time Is Not Equal
The tools that measure our screen-time consider all screen-time equal, but what’s happening on the screen is much more relevant than the screen itself.

Instead of trying to remove all screens from our lives, consider the type of activity you and your children are doing on screens. For example, creating or being in conversation is often better for well-being than passively scrolling or consuming others’ content.

Drawing and making dance videos are creative acts, but they are quite different from posting these creations online and repeatedly checking how many likes/comments each creation received. The latter can turn into “slot-machine” behavior, which is riskier for mental health.

There is also diffrence between two or more people looking at one screen and working together (i.e. games like HQ and Heads Up) and an individual scrolling in isolation (i.e. Candy Crush). The former is more like getting together to play a board game.


Questions to ask ourselves:

  • Am I engaging in “slot-machine” behavior? e.g. Endlessly scrolling for the occasional emotional reward? Repeatedly checking my likes to see how many there are, or who liked my post?
  • What values is this content/game teaching?
  • How can I use what I am consuming as a source of inspiration for creating something of my own?
  • What am I learning?
  • What is my reason for posting? How would it feel if no one likes this?
💻 Remember, Tech is a Trade
What are we trading for convenience and/or connectivity?

For example, with Google Maps we’re trading our location data for navigational convenience, and most of us are comfortable with that trade. Other times it takes a lot of reflection to recognize the deeper trade-offs. For example, we may be trading our time and peace of mind for seeing what others are posting, the trade is more than just being exposed to advertising. We also might be trading spending time on something that’s harder to do (like exercise) for being entertained. When a phone is involved, we’re often trading our mental presence in the room where we are physically for whatever is happening on screen. The people in the room can feel ignored and “less important” than what’s happening on the screen, which can be especially hard for children to experience from their parents.

Another example: When we’re in conversation, and we don’t know the answer to a question such as “Who’s the actor from that movie…?” we could use technology to look it up. If we did, we’d know the answer, but in doing so we’re trading the process of working together to figure it out, the laughs from wrong answers, and reflected memories. If we can recognize the trade we’re making, we become able to act more intentionally.


Questions to ask ourselves:

  • What am I losing as I’m gaining this convenience? Is it worth it?
  • Is this time well spent?
  • What’s the non-tech way to do this thing I’m doing right now? (e.g. journaling or meditating without an app)
  • How does my own tech as a parent use make my children feel?
🏃 Get Proactive
Tech is not neutral. It is vying for our attention and is very good at grabbing and holding it.

If we’re not intentional about how we spend our time, tech will take the reins for us. For example, instead of spending (distanced) time in nature, accomplishing the goals we set for ourselves, and talking/having video calls with friends and family, we get sucked into our phones without meaning to. Consider making a time management plan at the beginning of each day, week, or month, and helping your kids do the same.

“Based on the latest research, I recommend that children, teens and their parents sit down together and actively approach their 24-hour day as valuable time to be used in ways that support a healthy lifestyle.

Thinking of their day as an empty glass, they should fill it with the essentials; enough sleep to grow and avoid getting sick, school, time to spend outdoors, play, socialize, do homework, and to sit down for one meal a day together as a family (perhaps the single most protective thing you can do to keep their bodies and minds healthy). Once these activities are totaled, remaining time can be used for other experiences that interest the child, such as the activity in question (Minecraft, Fortnite etc.)”

– Dr. Michael Rich, Harvard University


Questions to ask ourselves:

  • Did I connect with the people I wanted to this week?
  • Did I put the effort and energy into the work, play, social time, activities, and sleep that I intended to dedicate myself to?
  • Is my current time management strategy working for me and my family?
🌱 Choose the "Right" Tech
Some digital environments are more conducive to what we’re trying to accomplish and how we’re trying to act than others.

For example, talking about emotionally sensitive topics over text is likely going to create conflict because it strips away the most expressive aspects of our human communication. Have you ever noticed that it feels different to sit and talk side-by-side with someone as opposed to sitting directly across from one another? Even though FaceTime or Zoom may sound more connected, a phone call is more like sitting side-by-side, making it a good choice when collaborating or playing a game. Choose digital environments that are supportive of the human goals you’re trying to accomplish and the values you’re striving to live by.

Sometimes, the speed of our internet or the devices available to us are simply not compatible with the homework or tasks being assigned to us. Some parents are deciding that it’s just not worthwhile for themselves or their children to engage in certain aspects of online learning/working that are not conducive for their lifestyle or anxiety levels during this time. If deciding to abandon a task all together for reasons like these, it can be helpful to communicate what’s happening with those providing the assignments. Many schools and work environments will be more flexible during this pandemic than they might have been before.

Some examples of decisions you can make about your digital environments:
on-screen vs. off-screen, video vs. audio vs. text, asynchronous communication (like texting or email) vs. synchronous communication (like a phone call or Zoom). Worth doing vs. not worth doing.


Questions to ask ourselves:

  • Is this conversation best for text or should I call or FaceTime this person?
  • Do I want to share this with everyone on social media or a select few?
  • How long did it actually take to have that text conversation, and how much was my attention interrupted in that time?
  • Is this digital environment working for me or my family?
👧 Protect Developing Brains
We are using and relying on technology more than we ever dreamed we would, but it's important to remember that children’s brains are still developing and can literally be shaped by technology and media.

As parents, it’s good to be honest with ourselves: Are our children using tech for their benefit or for ours, such as getting work done or catching a breath? If it’s really for our benefit, that’s ok – managing parental stress is a huge part of parenting in a pandemic! But also try to encourage kids to play by themselves or with a sibling not using a screen, so screens aren’t the only default.

When we are using Zoom, FaceTime, or other technologies to replace a lack of socialization, remember that young children are likely not going to be able to sustain a video chat very long. So if they’re missing their friends, maybe gather them for a story hour where they can see their friends and answer questions about a book but the focus isn’t on one-on-one interaction. Another option, instead of expecting a preschooler to carry on a video conversation with a grandparent for a long time, is to have the grandparent watch the child play and perhaps comment on what he or she is doing from time to time—just as they would if they were actually in the room. For more on developmentally appropriate advice, The Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood has a great resource.


Questions to ask ourselves:

  • Is this screentime really for them or for me?
  • Are we creating screen-free zones and times in our home?
  • What kind of call or online socializing should we engage in?
🤔 Be Skeptical
While staying indoors during COVID-19, it's natural for our tech time to increase. But it is still helpful to approach tech, especially free social media products, with a skeptical attitude because money is being made somehow.

Use the products and devices that have a significant and clear positive impact on what you’re trying to accomplish. When you’re adopting something new, rather than assuming it’s immediately better, check in along the way to see how it’s going for you.

Remember that many social media products are trying to get you hooked on sharing information about yourself. They make billions of dollars by analyzing your data and your behavior with powerful supercomputers, selling those insights to advertisers who want to sell products to you and your friends. The advertisers are the real customer, and unfortunately, you are the product being sold to them. Remind yourself and your kids of this. Help your kids notice what addictive techniques these apps use.


Questions to ask ourselves:

  • How is this going to improve my life?
  • What value does this bring me as a human being?
  • What skills might I be giving up as I use technology to do this?
  • What personal information am I comfortable posting, considering it could be sold to advertisers?
  • How are the apps and services I use trying to keep me as a user?
Would you recommend these guidelines to a friend?
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Additional Resources

During COVID, parents have a difficult balancing act between so many different challenging and stressful variables. Better understanding our family’s intentions using technology, evaluating the trade-offs, and being informed on alternatives are important ways to keep our sanity and create healthier tech use now and in the future.

If you’re looking for more resources on how to do this, we have some additional materials available at humanetech.com/parents-students.

Be well, and be gentle with yourselves!

—The CHT Team

Were these helpful for you? Is something missing? We’d love to hear from you.

Want to share these guidelines with someone in your life?

Special thanks for feedback and additions to these guidelines: Jenny Radesky, MD;  Jen Libby MSW, LCSW; and Susan Linn, ED.D., Author of The Case for Make Believe: Saving play in a commercialized world, and Lecturer on Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School.