Explore, Explain, and Empower for healthy use of screens

Small Screen - Thriving in a Digital World

June 6, 2023

Dr Justin Coulson is a dad to 6 daughters, host of Channel 9s hit TV show Parental Guidance, author of 8 books, and host of the Happy Families podcast. The second season of the TV show starts on June 5. [ https://9now.nine.com.au/parental-guidance ]

Explore, Explain, and Empower for healthy use of screens

There are strong empirical and moral arguments to be made for digital platform and service providers to develop their products in ways that support child and adolescent wellbeing. Some technology companies take this duty more seriously than others.

As a result of the lack of ‘care’ shown by many (most) digital platforms and tech companies (and because of the fact that we don’t live in a perfect world where corporations act in the best interests of their customers and users), those strong empirical and moral arguments must also be made for political leaders to introduce legislation designed to protect children and adolescent from the harms that these products and services present.

But leaving the digital safety of children and adolescents to developers, corporations, and politicians – each of which has vested interests that are all-too-often opposed to those of our families and children – is all but guaranteed to end in disappointment. While we must continue to pursue action and improvement in these ways, to rely solely on these methods is a fool’s errand. It’s a slow process. It’s working against self-interest (of those we lobby and petition). History shows that too many bureaucratic machinations exist to create meaningful change. And a full reliance on these options carries tremendous risk for our children.

Personal responsibility is essential if we are to create a healthy, happy, safe screen environment for children in Australia.

What does this look like? In this editorial I will set out an empirically sound and practical framework for parents, educators, and practitioners to describe healthy approaches to screen use for children and adolescents of all ages.

People are motivated (and well) when three basic psychological needs are supported and satisfied. These needs are:

  • a feeling of relatedness (defined by connection and belonging),
  • a sense of competence (experienced as mastery and capacity/capability), and
  • the experience of autonomy (felt through acting volitionally and in alignment with personal values and preferences).

When it comes to screen limits and boundaries, most children and teens do not experience any of these needs being met. Limits are often created haphazardly during times of conflict and intense emotion when parents are at their wit’s end, kids are tired, and nothing is working in the home. Alternatively, limits are set autocratically by well-intentioned parents who are trying to keep their kids safe by laying down the law in a ‘my house, my rules’ type of way.

These approaches tend to rupture relationships (undermining the relatedness need), crush competence needs (making kids feel like fools for being unable to regulate their screen use appropriately), and they are awful for autonomy needs (because choice is taken away from children in relation to screen use.)

A better approach is to adopt what I have termed “The Three Es of Effective Discipline”, which are that we Explore, Explain, and Empower.

Conversations about screen limits are best held when emotions are level and balanced, which means not when kids are about to finish their game of Fortnite or when halfway through an episode on Netflix, not when we or our children are tired, and not when we are in a rush.

The conversation has three elements. First, we explore our child’s perception of the screen issues we’re encountering. Why are we fighting all the time? What’s working? What’s not? How are you feeling about it? How is everyone else feeling? What matters most to you when it comes to screens? Second, we explain our perspective. We outline our concerns (too much passive consumption, displacement of lifestyle elements that enrich life), describe what matters to us, and discuss perceived risks. Finally, we empower our child to develop a set of screen limits that will work best for both them and us.

This process is designed to sit on a bed of empathy. And while it is designed to empower children, it is a collaborative process that places parents in the position where they can guide decisions to sit within reasonable boundaries. Most important, it satisfies the three basic psychological needs our children have. They feel our involvement and connection, they feel competent because we’re trusting them to develop solutions (with our gentle guidance), and they feel a sense of control through our empowerment of them.

No matter how tech company policies and legislative decisions play out, there will always be a need for personal responsibility in the way tech is used. By exploring, explaining, and empowering our children, students, and clients to develop their own screen solutions in a need-supportive way, we increase the likelihood that screens will be used in a safe, healthy way.

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