Modeling better family communication around tech

Dr. Delaney Ruston – I am forever thinking about the challenges of modeling healthier screen time habits for our kids.

One important thing is to identify specific things you want to model. 

So often, parents say, “We, parents, all need to model better around this.” The problem with this is big amorphous goals, such as ”I’m going to eat healthier” or “ I need to model screen time better for my kids,” tend to fall by the wayside. 

In the past, I have written about other specific ways to model tech time.

Today’s blog is about improving communication and understanding of what people are doing on their devices, and it is also about modeling having more mindfulness of what one is doing. 

I offer a model of how to break down screen time and how it can be helpful to model saying to family members which of these three things you are doing on your devices: Tool, Talk, or Treat?

Tools are things that help us to create.
Create is the operative word. For example, a teen may watch a YouTube video to learn how to build bird nests. They are creating. We use our devices to facilitate smarter and more creative brains for all sorts of work and school activities.

Treats are those 42 billion things that our devices serve up to us and let us consume, and consume we will.
In a workshop I did last week with parents and their kids after watching Screenagers, I gave each table two minutes to come up with all the ways they use tech as a treat. It had to be specific —  they couldn’t say video games in general — they had to list specific games. 

For Talk, envision a Venn diagram. It overlays with Tool and Treat, such as when we talk with friends over FaceTime or make a call to get an oven repaired. 

Once you have Tool, Treat, and Talk down, here is the modeling part. See if you can get in the habit of speaking your use out loud by telling your kids how you are using your device when you are on it. You may spontaneously say, “I’m using it for Talk — I am coordinating the carpool for soccer.” You may say, “Work,” and that is it. You don’t always need to go into more detail. And then, of course, specify when you are using your device in Treat mode. 

This modeling can improve understanding in the family and give kids a better idea of what you are doing on your device.

Ask any child or teen if they think their parent is on their device too much, and about 70% will say “yes.” I base this loose stat on the informal surveys of thousands of kids and teens I’ve done in small and large group settings for over a decade.

The fact is, we use our devices for work at times when our kids assume we should be more at play. We are also just as susceptible to being pulled to our screens as our kids are. If we feel a bit sheepish to say what we are doing on our screen, it is a great time to reflect on that feeling, i.e., “I may be watching too many YouTube videos of football halftime shows.” 

Conversations around what constitutes, Tool, Treat, and Talk help bring self-awareness. 

And finally, it can be fun to talk about the borders between these three categories are not cut and dry. Wordle could be considered a treat, but you could also say it is a Tool since you are using your brain to produce words using strategic thinking. 

Questions to get the conversations started:

  1. Think about the Venn diagram I mentioned above about how Talk can overlap with Treat and Tool. Name some times when you use your device to Talk, but it overlaps into the Treat realm. What about a moment when Talking overlaps with the Tool realm?
  2. (A question for kids) When does your parent use their device for Treat time? What Treat things do they use?
  3. Come up with more examples of device uses where the lines between Treat, Talk, and Tool are a bit fuzzy.