How can I help my daughters shift their media routine into back-to-school mode?

Michael RichMichael Rich, MD, MPH, is Boston Children’s Hospital’s media expert and director of Boston Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. (Visit their newly redesigned website here.) Send him a media-related parenting question via and follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.

Q: I have two daughters, 8 and 6, who will be returning to school this September. I tend to be fairly liberal with the rules around media use during the summer, but this year both girls will be receiving iPads from their schools to use for classwork and homework. I’m concerned about getting the girls back into a balanced routine where they can focus on their schoolwork and assignments without being distracted by media, but with the addition of iPads and my eight-year-old needing to use the internet for homework, I’m not sure how to set boundaries. Any advice you can offer will be truly appreciated. Thanks!

~ Feeling the Back-to-School Blues, Dedham, MA

A: Dear Blues,

The introduction of tablets and smartphones into education has blurred the concept of screen time and screen time limits as a strategy for helping kids thrive in a digital environment. Using these tech tools both in the classroom and at home can help strengthen your child’s learning, but your guidance can help them use these tools optimally while balancing a rich and diverse menu of experiences.

iPad-and-kidsWith multiple-use devices such as computers and tablets (especially if they are internet connected), the temptation is to multitask with entertainment and socializing, instead of concentrating on one task, such as a homework assignment. Although kids (and adults) assume that they can easily watch YouTube videos, chat with friends online, download music, and play a game while simultaneously completing their homework, research shows that although multitasking covers more territory, completing homework takes longer and the quality of their work declines. They make more mistakes, they do not think as deeply or reflectively, and they don’t retain what they learn as well, because true “multitasking” does not actually occur. Instead, they are rapidly toggling between cognitive demands that compete for attention and require different neural circuits. Watching a YouTube video, instant messaging a friend about it, and writing a book report are very different processes that demand different parts of the brain. It takes time to shift back and forth between activities – and even more time to regain the perspective and train of thought required once they have been distracted.

To help your children balance their tablet use (as well as TV, videogames and internet), use these devices with them, guiding and modeling productive, focused use of these powerful tools. Sitting with your daughters or being present while they use their tablets for school work can help them stay focused and on task in spite of the allure of other tablet-based activities. It is important for you to teach them to use screen media in mindful ways, and even more important to use your own digital media in the same ways you want to see your kids using them. Use a device to accomplish a task and then turn it off and move on to other activities.

Your daughters will learn better and have more fun doing it if you diversify their experiences. Once their work on the tablet is done, get them up, get them moving, and get them outside, playing with friends, making music, or exploring. Children (and adults) need to exercise their bodies, improving blood flow to their brains so that they learn more efficiently. They must also spend time away from their school work, so that they can process and synthesize what they have learned. You can help keep your daughters  on a schedule that is optimal for both school and their own development: Create a routine that accounts for all the important activities that your daughters need for optimal development (sleep, play, family meals, etc.) as well as school and screen-based homework. Starting the week before school can help ease the transition, ensuring that they are up to speed with their thinking, questioning, and learning before they go back to school!

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®