Even a small family ritual can help combat screentime overuse

Ally Hirschlag

THE WASHINGTON POST – Every day after school when I was a teenager, my family performed this quirky little ritual of standing in the kitchen, snacking and talking about our day. It evolved from our mutual love of snacks, and from our shared hatred of having to put things on plates and walk more than two feet to enjoy them.

I used to balance on one leg, tree pose-style, and regale my parents with school play gossip while they complained about their respective co-workers. The ritual would end with us fighting over whether to cook dinner or get delivery.

While I never would have admitted it then, it was my favourite time of day. I enjoyed my parents’ company, and loved dishing about what was going on in my high school sphere. However, this was before smartphones, those ever-present distractions that keep so many of us locked away in our own digital worlds.

These days, my parents and I still stand, talk and snack, but the conversations are shorter and more stilted, because at least one of us is scrolling on a personal screen. Family time is no longer as boisterous or interactive as it once was. This mirrors so many families’ reality.

Screen time often hijacks what was once considered sacred family time. And kids aren’t the only ones to blame; parents seem to have just as much difficulty turning away from their phones. This lack of interaction can make them less effective caregivers. It can breed isolation and loneliness. It can also have long-term effects on kids’ brains, impacting their communication, problem-solving and social skills.

Even though many parents try to impose limits on their kids, screens still manage to get woven into various family rituals – from mealtimes to bedtime.

“Just last night I watched us all climb in my bed on our devices – what was once a time for us to watch a family show together has been replaced by the TV in the background with my son on his iPad, my daughter on her iPhone and me sneaking glances at my iPhone on the table, yet telling everyone to get off their device,” says writer and single mom Christine Michel Carter.

Mandating limitations on screens is complicated, especially because they are used for both learning and play.

“I am always fighting an internal battle about how much screen time I allow my children (ages two months, two, 10 and 12),” says Alexandra Fung, CEO of Upparent. “If they have been playing a coding game for an hour, can they still play with their Nintendo Switch, despite their one-hour screen time limit?” But what if establishing concrete rituals could help families fight the negative effects of screen time? According to a review of 50 years of research conducted by psychologists at Syracuse University, a regular family activity that everyone enjoys and that involves interaction (translation, no one in a screen bubble), can improve family relationships and overall health. Getting everyone to participate enthusiastically, however, is no small feat.

Psychologist Evan Imber-Black works with families to address this very issue. Imber-Black is director of the Center for Families and Health at the Ackerman Institute in New York. Her book, Rituals in Families and Family Therapy, which she wrote with two of her former students, Janine Roberts and Richard Whiting, details how therapeutic family rituals can be.

All forms of rituals can help connect families, including holidays and life-cycle rituals such as weddings and funerals. But Imber-Black finds that the small, regular rituals, such as game nights and special weekly meals, tend to have the most lasting benefits.

“These are no small things in terms of needing the structure,” Imber-Black says. “One of the things we talk about in our book is rituals are a container for strong emotions, and they help us to hold them. Whether that’s joy or whether that’s sadness.”

One example she gives is a single mother who stopped having dinner with her children after she and her husband divorced. “She just couldn’t bring herself to sit down and be a family of three when they had been a family of four. I said, ‘Listen, do me a favor, over the next two weeks, would you have supper with the kids once?’ ” Imber-Black says. The mother agreed, and she enjoyed the meal. Soon, she started making it a regular thing. “They needed to reconstitute as a family of three. It perked the kids up just to have that.”

People naturally crave connection and the comfort of routine. Family rituals provide both, but a screen in the way can hinder their effectiveness. If parents curtail their own screen attachment first, it may inspire their children to follow, because a child’s behaviour is often learned from parents. But that’s easier said than done.

“I feel shame and guilt around my behaviour, and then at the same time, I feel that it’s inevitable,” says Ashley Castro of Los Angeles. “The pressure to be the ‘do-it-all mom’ means I need to squeeze as much productivity out of my waking hours as possible. And my cellphone is a tool to do most of it from home with my kids.”

Smartphones and tablets make work/life balance difficult for parents, especially those who work from home. The pressure to always be on and connected can quickly turn into an excuse to disconnect during family time. And once you’re in your screen, it’s all too easy for answering a work email to become mindless scrolling through Instagram.

There’s no simple solution here; managing screen time, both as an individual and a parent, is an ongoing battle. But if you remember how good it feels to take a break from it and interact with loved ones, that will hopefully inspire you to make those breaks routine. And whatever it is you like to do collectively in those moments, that’s your new family ritual.

“Some kind of thing that you can count on,” Imber-Black says of the rituals. “It makes a big difference.”

It doesn’t have to be a meal or take more than 20 minutes – it can be as simple as everyone talking in the bathroom while getting ready in the morning. It’s just about sharing space without any agenda or distractions. If it’s helpful to make it a scheduled event, have your family brainstorm fun things to do together once a week and set a time that works for everyone.

Screens aren’t the enemy. They can even factor into some family rituals as long as everyone’s involved. Maybe there’s a fun game you can play via your kids’ video game console, or each person can pick a favorite YouTube video from the week and you can watch it together and talk about it. Regardless of what you decide to do, it’s worth reevaluating your relationship with screens and seeing where they’re infringing on your family connections.

“I find myself moving away from my originally more simplistic approach of setting hard time limits to screen time, and trying to focus instead on finding balance, and seeking opportunities for meaningful family interactions wherever we can make them,” Fung says.

Technology is going to keep throwing new, enticing distractions at us, but they’ll never be as meaningful as real-life family time. If you can regularly remind yourself and your family of the importance of those small moments, they won’t fade into the background.