Parents face the daily struggle of managing time spent by their children using technology. This is so prolific that even Apple is being pushed to develop tools to respond to smartphone addiction in youth. But the idea of simply “limiting screen time” is impractical given that children, like adults, now use technology for a significant amount of their work, learning, and socialization.
Is Screen Time Good for Kids?
Emerging research has shown that the impact of media use depends not only on the amount of time spent, but on the content, the developmental level of the child, and the ways in which media use fits into the broader context of the child’s life. There are obvious differences between watching an episode of Sesame Street, playing Call of Duty, video chatting with Grandma, and uploading selfies to Instagram. The appropriateness and effects of these different activities will vary by the age, personality, and skill level of the child, as well as by the amount of time spent in the activity and on the other activities it replaces in the child’s life.
The American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy statement on media use, released in 2016, calls for limits on the amount of time children spend using screens, particularly for young children. The report summarizes scientific research showing negative effects of too much screen time on obesity, sleep, and cognitive, language, and social/emotional development. At least one recent study, however, calls into question whether adhering to these guidelines has a significant impact on children’s well-being. In addition, the new policy acknowledges potential benefits of media use and digital access for school age children and teenagers, such as access to information to special interest communities as well as social contact with peers.
There is growing consensus, including in the AAP 2016 statement, that what children do using screens is more important than how much time they spend using them. Playing an interactive video game or smartphone app is a more immersive experience than passively watching similar content on television, and may therefore have a more significant impact on children’s thinking and behavior. Playing an educational game is generally more beneficial than watching an educational TV show. Conversely, video games in which the child controls engagement in violence and other bad behavior on screen may be more dangerous for the developing brain than simply watching similarly violent movies or TV.
It is important to remember that the meaning and impact of screen time can differ for different kids. For instance, children and teenagers with social anxiety may find peer interactions less intimidating through screens than in person, but may also be more susceptible to the negative effects of social media, such as feeling envious of others’ lives or left out of social gatherings. Similarly, for children with ADHD, certain types of media use might be especially appealing, calming in the moment, and hold their attention longer than most other activities. On the other hand, they may also be at increased risk for overuse.
Managing Screen Time: Tips for Parents
Given the complexity of today’s media landscape and its potential effects on children, how can parents manage their children’s screen time in a way that maximizes the advantages and minimizes the dangers?
Although eliminating screen time altogether is no longer considered practical, most experts continue to agree that excessive media use is not good for children. Parents should set limits for their children’s media use, the specifics of which will vary based on the child’s age and the schedule of the family. Begin by establishing certain times during which screens are off-limits, such as homework time, family dinner, and right before bedtime. For the remainder of the day, you can use your device’s settings or an app to set a specific time limit, or implement a family rule about what must be accomplished (e.g., homework, chores) before screen time can begin. Most importantly, ensure that screen time is not replacing other critical activities by making sure children are getting enough sleep and physical activity, and that they have time to complete homework, read books, engage in person with family members and friends, and play and explore in the real world. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ website includes an interactive tool parents can use to create a media plan for their family.
Focus on Content
In addition to monitoring the amount of time your children spend using screens, also ensure that they are engaging with content that is appropriate for their ages and for your family’s values. Websites such as Common Sense Media can help you evaluate media you may be unfamiliar with. Use interactive types of media to improve learning, and avoid interactive violent games. Especially for kids with attention difficulties, stick with slower paced shows and games over those that are more stimulating. Device settings and apps can also help with managing content, but should be used in conjunction with live parental monitoring. In addition to ensuring their safety, knowing what your children are doing on their screens opens important opportunities for learning and conversation.
Model Appropriate Use
Be an example for your child of how to use screens in a healthy way. Make certain times in your family routine (such as family dinner time) during which media is off-limits to all family members, not just the kids. When you are with your children, try to remain engaged with them without the distraction of checking your phone.
For more specific strategies to manage your family’s technology and media plan, contact us here.