Teens & screens: The 4 M’s of screen use and what you need to know

“If parents & guardians use their screens a lot, it’s likely their kids do, too.”

guy boring watching tvTeens and screens: these days, it’s almost impossible to see one without the other. From e-learning to social media to gaming, many young Canadians are spending more time in front of screens than ever before.

Unfortunately, screen time almost always means sedentary time, and too much sedentary time can have negative impacts on kids’ physical and mental health. Research shows an increased risk for chronic disease (think type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure), poor sleep quality, and therefore, less ability to focus and learn – two major obstacles to hurdle when it comes to the classroom, even if it’s still a virtual one.

To help shed some light on the teen-screen dilemma, we sat down with parent and child health expert and researcher at SickKids Research Institute and the Department of Psychiatry, Dr. Katherine Tombeau Cost.

“One of the challenges is that the guidelines around screen usage have recently changed,” Katherine said. “We used to say that it’s a maximum of two hours per day, but we recognize that’s not really possible as many students have to do online schoolwork, research, etc. Now we say a maximum of two hours a day on recreational screen time (video games, movies, TV), but that’s going to be different for different kids in different situations.”

Instead of only focusing on the number of hours your teens might be in front of screens, instead, Katherine suggests “it’s more important to think about what are called the 4 M’s of screen time.”

The 4 M’s of screen time

1. Minimize – “Try to not use screens when you don’t need to have them on, like during leisure or downtime or when outside. Do what you can to minimize usage, whenever possible.”

2. Mitigate – “Think about what kind of screen time teens are getting, and actually watch it with your teens and tweens, which can lead to important conversations you can have with them about values that your family has, helping them process and learn about the content they are watching.”

3. Mindfulness “Do what you can to be aware of screens and how much they are on. Turn off screens, alerts, and notifications when not in use. Turn off the TV instead of constantly having it on in the background.”

4. Modelling – “Adult screen use can influence teen screen use, if parents and guardians use their screens a lot, it’s likely their kids do, too. Often, we don’t even realize how much time we (parents) are spending on our screens! Develop a family media plan around screen use. Have rules about screens in bedrooms, and rules about how much screen use is acceptable. Some families have a ‘No Screen Day’, and that’s where they spend time getting outdoors or reading or something creative like drawing or other kinds of crafts – everyone is doing their own thing but everyone puts their own screens in the basket for the day.”

boy sleeping in front of notebookThe 4 M’s can be the foundation to influence positive change in your family’s screen behaviour. Instead of just trying to hit a specific number of daily screen usage hours, Katherine calls on parents to be more involved and aware of their teens’ screen time.

“The 4 M’s are more emphasized now over just setting a specific limit,” Katherine explained. “In terms of having a limit you can say: ‘Okay, I have the number and I know what I’m doing’. Whereas the 4 M’s are actually asking for a lot more energy and reflection from the parents to think of these things all the time.”

“We understand that can be a big ask, but if parents can approach screens and screen time as a way to spend time with their teens and engage in conversations rather than a battle to be won or lost, it might feel more do-able.”

Technology and screens are here to stay and will remain a big part of teens’ lives for years to come. Screen time with all its negative health impacts is on the rise globally, but with the right tips and know-how, adults can make positive decisions in their weekly routines that have major positive impacts on how teens use and think about screens. Have the conversations, make a plan, and follow through.