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Regain screen/life balance with Seattle’s Screentime Consultant

Emily Cherkin (left) founder of The Screentime Consultant hangs out with the Owen family and Penny the pup. (Courtesy)

If you’re a parent, I’m pretty sure you’ve heard something like this when you tell your kid it’s time to shut down YouTube, Instagram, Netflix or the the video game de jour: “Five. More. Minutes. Please!”

That’s what 9-year-old Georgia Owen often says to her mom Sonja Owen. She says her Bellevue family’s happiness was being compromised by too much screen time.

“[The kids say] ‘I’m just gonna check it real quick’ or ‘Please, please, can I just play for a little bit?’ or ‘Just 20 minutes!’ and it would turn into an hour and everybody would lose track of time,” Sonja said. “Also, the attitudes they’d have when they were done. They were grumpy or nasty. The addiction thing, you know. For me, too, I was completely selfish because it was so great to have the quiet time.”

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Overwhelmed, Sonja decided to outsource. Enter Seattle’s Emily Cherkin, founder of The Screentime Consultant. Cherkin’s business was inspired by the 12 years she spent teaching middle school.

“I was talking to the kids about their use and I was like, ‘You guys shouldn’t look at your phones so much,'” Cherkin said. “And they were like, ‘Well, it’s our parents. Our parents are texting and driving. Our parents are on social media.’ And then I realized this is a family problem, it’s not just a kid problem. Now I really believe it’s an adult problem with a kid impact. So we really have to figure out how to help kids. But we can’t do that without helping adults first.”

“They’ll say, ‘Hypocrite!’ And I’m like, ‘But I just have to text her back!'” Sonja laughs. “So I’m doing the exact same thing. My husband, too. His business is really based off his phone. Getting him to at least put it away sometimes. It’s healthy.”

Cherkin speaks to parents and teachers and conducts screen time workshops for kids, but she also works directly with families who struggle with screen/life balance. It’s a six week program, $150 to $200 a session, and it’s not just: turn off your phone and go out and play. It’s about understanding why you’re compelled to look at your phone and seeing how that affects your relationships and your own health and happiness.

“Learning why it’s addictive,” Sonja said. “So we talk about it. What are the companies trying to do here? Why do you think you want it so much? Her other suggestion was looking at commercials. Why do they have a woman in the kitchen doing all the housework and who are they trying to reach?”

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Sonja’s eldest daughter, 14-year-old Jenna Owen, was spending five hours a day online. Even when she tried to resist the urge, she still has to get her school assignments online.

“We have to look online,” Jenna said. “I get sidetracked a lot. So then it turns into going to Instagram and homework gets delayed.”

But with limits put in place, Jenna is rediscovering a love for art and basketball.

“I take notes when I work with Jenna,” Cherkin said. “There was one week where your mom pulled the phone entirely, right? I remember writing in my notes, ‘Jenna is a completely different person this week. Her ability to focus during the session. She had gotten more sleep the night before, was more organized.’ But it was shockingly different. Even though I try and practice this with my own kids I am still surprised at how much of an immediate change I see.”

Cherkin doesn’t recommend going cold turkey with technology, it’s just not sustainable. She’s a fan of setting timers and using screen time as a reward after chores are done, homework is finished and time is spent being creative, being outside and hanging out with family.

“I like to go on my trampoline, play games and I like to listen to my book,” Georgia said. “I do like to color and craft.”

Georgia said she doesn’t know how much time she was spending in front of screens each day.

“After you go on, it’s kind of hard to remember when you started!”

Cherkin says this is only a five year old problem. It’s only been about five years since tablets and YouTube channels were aimed specifically at kids. So parents might need a little help.

“If you can make one small change, if you can pick one area and just notice those small changes over a two week period, I really believe there will be a positive change,” Cherkin said. “The really hard part is consistency, for parents. It’s so easy to cave and if you can stick it out, give it two weeks. Again, don’t go cold turkey, remove all screens, I’m telling you right now it won’t work.”

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