“You can’t upload love, you can’t download time, you can’t Google all of life’s answers. You must actually live some of your life.” – Anonymous
It likely doesn’t come as a surprise that ongoing research is being conducted on screen time’s short- and long-term effects. There is growing evidence of the influence this life-changing innovation has on our children and adults. There are some, shall we say, very strong and polarized opinions about technology and its use. Let’s explore this together.
Technology and Kids: The Good and The Bad
There are certainly benefits of digital media. But what kind of exposure and how much screen time is appropriate remains the question. I am entering this discussion with a balanced approach in mind. We know that technology is not all good or all bad. I believe screens can and should work for you within your family values and parenting style. When used thoughtfully, it can enhance daily life, facilitate learning, and build community. Especially throughout this pandemic, many of us have been working and schooling from home, and technology has become virtually (pun intended) a necessity!
The lane of moderation requires us to be flexible enough to evolve and intentional in choosing to use technology correctly for our family. A parent’s role in managing their family’s screen time is to enhance the positive and mitigate the negative. As research unfolds, parents need to be aware of the importance of encouraging healthy habits that support their child’s growth and development. When screens are used excessively or inappropriately, they can interfere with creativity and displace important activities such as face-to-face interaction, family time, outdoor play, exercise, unplugged downtime, and sleep.
Why Should Parents Limit Our Screen Time?
Before we discuss how we might seek balance and take back control with healthy boundaries, it’s important that we first understand our “why.” Limiting screen time will be inconvenient. Our kids will whine for their phones or tablets. We will certainly be tempted to zone out and scroll. It is important in these moments that we remember exactly why we are doing this.
As adults, we are not immune to the draw of technology and the risk of its overuse. In a large study of six thousand 8-13-year-old children, 32% reported feeling “unimportant” when their parents use their cell phones during meals, conversations, or other family times.1 The children reported competing with technology for their parent’s attention. Over half of the children in the study said their parents spend too much time on their phones. The #1 thing kids wished about technology was that their parents would get off their phones. Take a second and read that again. Wow.
Parents’ Distraction by Screens Can Cause Behavioral Issues in Children
Screen use can serve as a stress reliever for parents but, at the same time, potentially wastes opportunities for parent-child connection, which is unbelievably important to a child’s health and development. Studies show that when parents are physically present but distracted and less responsive while attending to their smartphones, their children are more likely to exhibit problematic behaviors.
Researchers have found that infants and toddlers express more distress and are less likely to explore their environment when their mothers are distracted by their cell phones. Like other forms of parental unresponsiveness, mobile device use harms infant social-emotional functioning and parent-child interactions. Kids thrive when they receive consistent, dependable, focused, and loving attention. Using a smartphone when you’re with a child can be a form of psychological withdrawal. Even though this is mainly unintentional, and we don’t want to admit it to be true, it is still a reality.
How Does Screen Time Affect Our Kids?
Now let’s move on from our screen time to how our children’s screen time affects them. There is robust research in this area that reveals interesting data. I have included a summary of many of the more well-known studies to date (citations listed below).
- Excessive screen time increases the risk of ADHD symptoms in preschool-age children. Children aged 3-5 years who spend over two hours per day on screen time are more than 7x more likely to meet the criteria for ADHD than those who spend two hours a day or less on these activities.2
- Preschool-aged children’s manual dexterity skills were inversely related to screen time use.3
- Kids aged 4 who spent more time using devices and watching television showed lower emotional understanding and relationship skills at age 6.4
- Teens spending more time on social media and television are likelier to have lower self-esteem, depression, and other mental health symptoms. Children in grades 8-12 have increasing rates of depression and suicide, and those who spend more time on social media and electronic devices are at significantly higher risk.5
- More time on devices and reduced time spent on learning activities such as reading lead to worse academic outcomes for older students.6
- Adolescents aged 15 and 16 years who, at baseline, are without symptoms of ADHD developed subsequent symptoms of ADHD over a 24-month follow-up with a higher frequency of digital media use.7
- Screen time is associated with later bedtimes, shorter amounts of sleep, and poorer quality sleep for children of all ages from preschool through high school. The use of devices overnight in the child’s bedroom is a major predictor of too little quality sleep.8
- Screens are a risk factor for children in all age groups to be overweight or obese. This also carries with it health concerns related to obesity, including diabetes and high blood pressure.
Not All Screen Time Is Created Equal
What is it about screen time that is so disruptive to normal growth and development? It’s important to realize that not all screen time is created equal. Screen time can be divided into two main types of input: passive and interactive.
Passive Screen Time
Passive screen time is exactly what it sounds like, watching a screen while our body is at rest. Parents typically know that this time needs to be monitored and limited. On the other hand, interactive screen time is when our bodies and minds are both engaged (i.e., video games). This is less likely to be monitored and perceived as less harmful because the child is physically active. But it is actually thought to be more damaging to the developing brain than passive screen time. Screen-based media has been shown to physically change the brain structure — it leads to white matter changes, impacting young children’s learning language and literacy skills.9
Interactive Screen Time
Interactive screen time overstimulates the pre-frontal cortex of a child’s brain, causing it to work on what’s called a variable reward system. A child’s brain lacks a fully developed self-control system to help them with stopping this kind of obsessive behavior. What happens when you try to take your child’s screen away? They have a difficult time self-regulating, and you see age-inappropriate tantrums.10 When the unnatural overstimulation of a screen chronically stresses kids’ nervous systems, they remain in fight or flight mode, which, over time, leads to dysregulated behavior and less efficient stress management.
Integrative child psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Dunckley has described this as a disorder called Electronic Screen Syndrome. Signs and symptoms include irritability, mood swings, low frustration tolerance, disorganized or oppositional behavior, poor sportsmanship, social immaturity, poor eye contact, sleep deprivation, learning difficulties, poor executive function, and short-term memory loss.
How You Can Take Back Control
Ultimately, parents are responsible for facilitating healthy boundaries with their child’s screen use. So what can you do to take back some control of your family’s screen time? I recommend you create a well-thought-out plan, write it down, and display it somewhere for everyone in the family to see. Perhaps you can develop a Personalized Family Media Use Plan offered by the American Academy of Pediatrics here.
Here are some guidelines to consider:
- Family culture develops, whether we pay attention to it or not, so we might as well do it on purpose and make deliberate decisions about what works best for our family. Think to yourself — what do I want my family and home life to feel like?
- Decide when there will/will not be screen time in the home (ex: family meals, family events). Be okay with unstructured time. Play is enough. By limiting screen time, we ensure our children have a healthy balanced diet of play. Help children plan how to spend their time, encouraging creativity and activities to avoid falling into the screen abyss. Prioritize non-screen time activities like reading and connecting with nature.
- Screens should be kept out of kids’ bedrooms. Period. Put a “media curfew” in place at mealtime and bedtime, putting all devices away or plugging them in at a charging station for the night. Blue light-emitting screen use before bed has been shown to disrupt sleep patterns by suppressing the secretion of the hormone melatonin, leading to less shut-eye and a decrease in the deep REM sleep, which is essential for the processing and storing information from that day into memory.
- Limit entertainment screen time to less than two hours per day.
- For children under 2, substitute unstructured play and human interaction for screen time. The opportunity to think creatively, problem-solve, and develop reasoning and motor skills is more valuable for the developing brain than passive media intake.
- Take an active role in your children’s media education by co-viewing programs with them. Look for media choices that are educational or teach good values. Choose programming that models good interpersonal skills for children to emulate.
- Be firm about not viewing content that is not age-appropriate: sex, drugs, violence, etc. Movie and TV ratings exist for a reason.
- Keep the computer in a public part of your home, so you can check on what your kids are doing online.
- Impress upon your children that they are leaving behind a “digital footprint.” They should not take actions online that they would not want to be on the record.
- Become familiar with popular social media sites (like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok). You may consider having your own profile and “friending” your kids so you can monitor their online presence.
- Talk to them about being good “digital citizens” and discuss the serious consequences of online bullying.
I can’t tell you what you should do for your family and how much time is okay or too much. But, if your child struggles with regulating their emotions or disruptive behavior, you might have your answer. We must include healthy digital behaviors as we model various behaviors we want to grow in our children.
Consider a Complete Electronic Fast
There may come a time when you stop and realize that your child’s screen time isn’t good for them and isn’t making them happy or healthy in the long run. When this happens, consider a complete electronic fast for 2-4 weeks, perhaps over a school break, while distracted on vacation or busy around the holidays. I know. Just the thought of this feels completely impossible and terribly inconvenient. But your child’s behavior is what is truly inconvenient to live with every day. The potential long-term effects and quality of life pose an even bigger problem than what you are already dealing with.
If you complete a fast, trust me, you will see a remarkable difference. By acknowledging and addressing excessive screen time, we see significant improvements, including resolution of aggression, brighter moods, increased compliance, and improved grades, leading to less-stressed parents.
Explore This Issue Further
This article is not meant to add shame, guilt, or one more thing to your list of things to worry about. It is intended to show why managing your family’s screen time is so important. I hope that it motivates and empowers you to take back control. And trust me, I am not pointing fingers — my iPhone reminds me how many hours I spend using my phone every week. To be honest, I’ve thought about turning off the feature, but I have forced myself to keep it on, so I pay attention to my screen use.
If this article has stirred up some feelings, I ask you to stay open-minded and get curious. I invite you to explore that tugging with a bit more investigating of your own. Books you might find interesting on this topic include Reset Your Child’s Brain by Dr. Victoria Dunckley and The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age by Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD. Check out Dr. Larry Rosen’s iDisorder and Dr. Gary Small’s iBrain for current research, as well as the AMA-commissioned report from the Council of Science and Public Health: Emotional and Behavioral Effects of Video Games and Internet Overuse.11
Final Word: Be Present As Much As Possible
Technology is here to stay. Screen use is going to happen. Try to be present with your child as much as possible when you’re with your child. Put away your phone and other electronic devices, or at least designate screen-free time together as a family each day. A psychologist named Dr. Greg Kushnik said, “Teach your children that screens put life on hold.” That caused me to stop and think about how I’m using my time in these precious years with my kids at home. Let’s do our best to live life to the fullest, be engaged, and quit pushing the pause button.
Disclaimer: While I am a doctor, I am not your doctor. All content presented in this article is for educational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice and does not establish any kind of doctor/patient relationship. Speak to your healthcare provider about any questions or concerns you may have.