Ask the Experts: Digital Wellness in 2022

Screen Sanity Co-founder and Executive Director Tracy Foster was recently asked to participate in an expert panel for COSMO, a ground-breaking technology company that designs and builds innovative tech solutions to help keep kids safe and families connected. We love their COSMO JrTech 2 Smartwatch as an option for a child’s first device.

Tracy is joined by HIllary Wilkinson of Health Screen Habits and Nicole Rawson of Screen Time Clinic to share what families need to know about digital health in 2022.

*The blog below was reposted with permission from COSMO Technologies.*

Here’s a question: How has your family’s digital life changed in the past 5 years? How about the past year? If you’re thinking to yourself, “wow, it’s changed a lot” then welcome friends! For so many of us (all of us?), these rollercoaster past few years have radically reshaped the digital footprint of devices, screens, and social media in our lives. When we think of “wellness” we often think of food or exercise, but what about technology?

What if 2022 was the year we started making digital wellness a priority? A real priority. But where to start? Here’s the good news: No one’s in it alone! Today we’re thrilled to feature voices from some amazing organizations doing incredible work to educate, encourage, and support families each step of the way. We asked what families like yours need to know in 2022 and how to take the first steps on your own digital wellness journey. 

COSMO: Digital wellness might be a new term for some. How would you define what digital wellness is and why it matters?

Tracy Foster: Research shows our youth are spending more than nine hours a day on screens, not including for school work. So just as we think about our physical wellness or our mental wellness, it’s important to think of our digital wellness — how are our experiences in the online world helping us to feel better, achieve our goals, live out our values? And how are they accidentally causing us to feel isolation, discouragement, anxiety or depression?

It’s increasingly important for all of us — kids and parents — to become aware of the way we are feeling when using technology and learn to regulate ourselves so we can experience the incredible benefits but minimize the negative side effects.

Nicole Rawson: I’d define digital wellness as the pursuit of using technology in an intentional and mindful way that prioritizes mental and physical health and allows humans to flourish in the real world.

Hillary Wilkinson: Digital wellness is all about healthy balance with your tech.  We need to balance our time online with real world connections, physical interactions, and play. This balance is incredibly important because without it, we have a tendency to overuse technology.  Without balance, digital distraction easily moves in and we avoid dealing with big feelings and challenges. When tech is overused and life problems aren’t really dealt with, real solutions and growth opportunities get delayed or buried.

By incorporating areas of real world connection, physical activity, and a healthy, boundaried relationship with technology, we can truly enjoy the best of what our digital universe has to offer.

COSMO: You all spend a lot of time working with and studying families as it relates to navigating the digital world. What would you say are the biggest threats or challenges to families’ digital wellness now in 2022?

Hillary: Consistently, the biggest challenge we hear from families are behavioral changes due to a lack of sleep. Digital devices are stealing our sleep! Teens and children who are allowed to have screens in the bedroom are nearly incapable of staying off of them in the late night hours.  Lack of sleep impairs judgement, lowers immune system response, and leads to a generally rough day.

This is easily fixed by adopting our number one Healthy Screen Habit: Establish a family charging/docking station in the master bedroom or bathroom. This one habit can protect your child from digital temptations, lack of sleep, and can set your family up for establishing healthy boundaries around tech. We recommend the parents’ bedroom or bathroom because we have experienced first hand the creativity that can be employed by teens who want to access their screens at night! Protect your sleep and protect your kids by getting devices out of their bedrooms.

Tracy: One of the biggest challenges in 2022 is the carryover of tech habits that were formed in 2020 and 2021. Due to the pandemic, our world became almost exclusively online. That was the way we worked, did school, connected with our family and friends and even exercised. And because of our need at that time, technology was a huge gift. But those online behaviors have become habits, and even though we now have more opportunities for in-person engagement, our habits are keeping us behind the screen. We’re also hearing that tech companies are aggressively pursuing more and more persuasive design to maintain the same level of time and attention we gave our devices in 2020 and 2021. So, you’ll see it’s even harder to put down screens — because of the habits we’ve formed and because the digital force we are working against is multiplying its strength.

For parents, it can be really hard to change habits. Recognizing the habit is a great first step. We also recommend thinking of a natural change in routine or season, like the new year, spring break or summer vacation, to experiment with a change in your digital routine. You could try out device-free dinner, swapping an alarm clock for your phone alarm or leaving phones at home during family walks.

Nicole: There are so many areas of harm online that keep reaching children younger and younger, and impacting adult’s inability to interact in person effectively and connect as humans. The increasingly addictive design of social media apps and intense stimulation young minds experience with gaming or exposure to explicit images is very concerning. Children are experiencing adverse events younger and more frequently from their time online that have serious long term consequences. These risks have been well studied the past 10 years but are finally coming to light in mainstream media.

Plus when countries like China who have government controlled internet decide it’s for the best public health not to allow youth access to gaming and some social media platforms we should all be taking notice. Parents are needing more help figuring out how to keep their children safe, what tools to use, and how to limit and monitor. It’s a lot like losing weight or changing bad habits, easy to say you need to do it, but nearly impossible to do without the right support.

COSMO: What’s a piece of encouragement you’d give to families that might be feeling off balance with screen time and digital life right now?

Nicole: It’s never too early or too late to start making changes! Too much time online can over stimulate the reward pathways of the brain, causing all sorts of problems from hyperactivity, to symptoms of those on the autism spectrum. By reducing screen time, sometimes dramatically to only 20 minutes a day, children’s brains change the way they process everyday information.  Since children and teen’s brains have high neuroplasticity, it’s never too late to make healthy changes that have big benefits.

 Some people like to make dramatic changes like going screen free completely, which can be the easiest when both parents are in agreement, but even small changes like opting for a distraction free device, deleting apps, or reducing time in the evenings can have a big impact. Embrace doing more human activities, it doesn’t have to be exciting but our brains thrive from in person connections and activities. The friendships that are developed online are circumstantial and superficial, by connecting with more people off-line children and even adults learn how to effectively interact with each other, probably the most important skill in life that we often take for granted!

Hillary: Congratulations that you are aware your family is off balance!! The first step towards healthy screen habits is becoming aware that you can do things better. This awareness allows you to move intentionally towards the path you choose. There is no single path towards digital wellness. You and your family get to decide the right balance that will benefit your family’s health and well-being. That’s empowering! .

Tracy: First: You are not alone. We are the first generation of parents to be managing digital wellness for our families. We are learning as we go, and we are still in a pandemic! So, have grace with yourself. The fact that you are reading these words is proof you care and are trying. Give yourself a little pat on the back.

Second: It’s never too late to recalibrate. In our Screen Sanity program, we talk about five principles of digital health. Just pick one – the most low-hanging fruit for you and your family to help you get back into the swing of things. A little bit goes a long way.

Third: Your current situation could actually be one of the most valuable, impactful teaching moments for your family. Try sharing with your family what you’ve been experiencing. Maybe it’s saying, “Hey, I’ve noticed I’m being sucked in more by my phone lately. What have you been noticing or feeling when it comes to tech in our house?” Showcasing vulnerability and empathy is powerful and can lead to more open lines of communication and collaboration within your family, and that is a huge win.

COSMO: For families that want to be intentional about pursuing greater digital wellness this year, what are a few top strategies you’d recommend for getting started right?

Hillary: For families interested in gaining some traction around intentional tech use and digital wellness, start with our free, downloadable tool called “The Family Tech Plan”.  This customizable tool allows every family member to voice concerns and have a hand in creating the boundaries around tech. Encourage everyone’s input. The more that people in your family speak up and listen to each other in this process, the better the buy in will be.  Remember – you are a team! This is a helpful tool available on the Healthy Screen Habits website.

Another great, free resource we offer is the Healthy Screen Habits Podcast, available on most podcasting platforms as well as our YouTube channel. I seek out top experts in the field of digital wellness, child development as it relates to technology, and more.  Each episode is only 30 minutes and you get a Healthy Screen Habit (a tip or take away to try in your own home) in every one!

Tracy: The No. 1 strategy I’d recommend is to talk about digital wellness with your community — your friends, colleagues, book club, etc. Raising digital natives is hard enough, and it’s almost impossible to do alone. Our Screen Sanity Group Study provides a framework for these discussions, and participants report feeling a sense of relief, plus confidence and deeper community after talking out loud about these topics. The more you and other parents are aligned in your approach to technology, the more you’ll feel that strength in numbers. And it will feel a bit easier to stand your ground when your kid asks for X, Y, or Z for the one-hundredth time!

Nicole: Because digital media is so addictive and hard to escape, it’s important to start with a plan to really define and explore “why” and “how”. More than a contract, a media plan helps both parents come to agreement about digital routines and the tools that the family will use to keep children safe. It outlines not only the “how” but also provides the dialogue about “why” it’s healthy to limit. This keeps parents and kids focused on real priorities in life like humility, gratitude, physical health, mental health, and spending the right amount of time on studies, reading, and hobbies that provide coming of age opportunities and define us as humans.

Choosing the right tools is a big part of the “how” parents can reach the digital wellness goals without losing their minds!  Using a distraction free device like a COSMO smartwatch or kids phone makes it easy for parents to keep kids safe while still allowing contact with them when they are away.  Having a safe family wifi router like Mesh that can filter the internet and shut off access to certain computers is essential to ensure children get enough sleep and are not going over their daily time allowance at home.  If your family has ipads or tablets or phones, use monitoring software like OurPact to limit time and monitor content.

By crafting an intentional plan, families can be sure to keep focused on the big goals and preserve family bonds. Digital wellness coaches can help bring families together and make recommendations, or parents can craft this part of their life themselves– the important part is to start this before kids are in middle or high school and prevent big problems with mental health, social media overuse, pornography exposure, online predators, and gaming addiction. Digital media is the new drug all kids want, and has the same potential for harm as other drugs do, parents and communities need to band together to keep kids safe.