No TV or internet for a week!

Don’t touch the phone until your homework is done.

Wouldn’t you rather talk to your friends in person instead of over text?

Ever heard, or said, any of these things?

Too often, reducing screen time is the go-to solution in families battling media overuse. But another approach might be needed as it gets harder for any of us to escape screens, according to a University of Maryland expert.

Dina Borzekowski, a research professor of behavioral and community health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, studies the impact of media on the health and development of children and adolescents. While much of her work focuses on how media can promote children’s development in low-and middle-income countries, she’s now thinking about the new world of constant media, especially for digital natives in the United States. 

In a new paper published today in Health Education & Behavior, Borzekowski introduces the concept of “constancy”—the idea that media use is now a pervasive, continuous part of our lives—and particularly of today’s children and adolescents. 

Borzekowski offered five things parents and caregivers should keep in mind to lessen the stress of media constancy.

Understand and accept media’s presence. 
Media is everywhere and involves a continuum from “on-call” to active use. It entertains, distracts and frequently serves genuinely useful purposes, like coordinating meetings between friends, getting news or figuring out directions. You can’t just eliminate smartphones and other screens. “Constancy makes attempts to remove screens from children’s lives ineffective, unrealistic and misguided,” Borzekowski said. 

“It’s like getting rid of electricity or refrigeration in today’s world,” she said. “This is absurd to us and way more absurd to a 14-year-old.” 

Constancy’s effects are broad and powerful.
For better or worse, ubiquitous screens affect children’s cognitive, social and emotional development. “Children born with constant access to technology develop differently than previous generations,” Borzekowski said. One advantage is that children and adolescents always have access to information. As long as they have cellular service, they don’t ever have to be lost or alone as the blue dot helps them know where they are and they can always reach Grandma or their big sister. On the flip side, Borzekowski said that “children may be slower at becoming independent.”

Focus on the child, not the phone in her pocket.
Flip through any parenting magazine, and you’ll find media use as a scapegoat for everything from childhood obesity to depression. The omnipresence of phones and screens means they’ll probably play a role when something goes wrong, but it doesn’t mean they’re at the root of the problem.

A child suffering from cyberbullying is likely facing bullying in person too. Solving such an issue should first involve a conversation with the child, not an immediate phone confiscation. While there may be reasons to limit access, doing so doesn’t magically solve social and emotional difficulties children face. “It’s not the screen’s fault,” said Borzekowski.

The medium is no longer the message.
Media philosopher Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” in 1964, but the idea that how we receive a message is more important than the content no longer holds up, according to Borzekowski, because media is everywhere and content is increasingly fluid.

Take a viral video, for example: Children can access it through social media platforms, YouTube or websites and on devices that range from TVs, laptops and tablets to smartphones and smartwatches. “It is the content that matters,” said Borzekowski. “Not how it is delivered.”

Parents and caregivers can guide children toward the effective use of media.
Rather than demonizing constancy, parents and caregivers should look for ways to take advantage of what media have to offer. 

Smartphone apps can help students get excited about and study new material or even prepare for the SAT. For socially anxious or isolated children, online platforms can become a bridge to supportive communities. Children and families can monitor and address physical health and immediately connect with health providers in an emergency.

“The smartphones and screens are always there,” said Borzekowski. “In this new world of constancy, why not use the technology in a positive way?”