We live surrounded by tablets, smart phones, smart watches and smart TVs. Screens are increasingly unavoidable, and in a recent survey, 84 percent of parents say their kids’ tech use is a top parenting concern. Kids’ screen usage has doubled in the past 20 years. The first iPhone came out in 2007, so the ability to watch, read or listen to anything, anytime is a relatively new phenomenon.
It’s also true that the content kids are watching has changed drastically. In previous generations, kids watched shows like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street that had a casual pace and were designed to challenge and engage intellectually and educationally with children. Many of today’s children’s shows aim to entertain, featuring a barrage of bright colors, quick cuts and action, action, action designed to keep up with kids’ racing minds. This frenetic pacing can lead to behavior and developmental challenges in children.
While Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers aired at definite times and lasted a specific length of time, today’s kids are watching more and more content on Netflix and YouTube where the platforms are purposely designed to keep them watching as long as possible. As soon as one video ends, another begins. This addictive behavior can be extra challenging to break in children.
Screen dangers are not new
There are some specific new dangers that come with actual screens, but some of the dangers associated with screen time have been around for a while.
Today, the average person’s attention span is eight seconds. The average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds.
“Sedentary time,” when kids aren’t physically and mentally active, is one problem that comes with screens. If kids are playing Fortnite for hours on end, that’s time they’re not running around outside. The concern around too much screen time is largely an issue of what important activities screens might be replacing. Surveys show that 80 percent of adolescents are not sufficiently active, and screen time is often one of the main substitutes for these healthy activities.
Screen time often competes with bedtime. When kids (or adults) are sleepy, lounging around with a TV or a mobile device can be an enticing way to unwind at the end of the day. However, most experts suggest putting devices away one hour before bedtime to keep them from interfering with normal sleeping patterns. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping screens out of children’s bedrooms altogether.
This may be particularly relevant to teenagers, most of whom sleep with their cell phones. Many studies show this practice can impact mood, academic performance and overall attentiveness the next day. Blue light that comes from screens can especially hinder sleep.
Screen time can also be a time of increased snacking. If kids get in the habit of mindlessly popping in sugary snacks while plopped in front of a screen, that can also set unhealthy precedents as their minds, bodies and habits are formed.
Screen time presents social challenges. Many parents turn to screens to stifle or stop unpleasant behavior. If a child is bored, sad, angry or mad, handing them some form of entertainment typically “works” to improve the situation. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and most parents will resort to this method at some point. However, research shows that while a mobile device can be helpful in the short term, they can be detrimental to later social-emotional outcomes when used as the principal way in which children are taught to calm themselves down.
Children with more than two hours of screen time a day got lower scores on tests of thinking and language skills.
We may be inadvertently teaching our children that they need to be distracted and not actually deal with their emotions or behavior. Devices shouldn’t become a substitute for real human interaction or a mask to cover up good or bad emotions. Kids need to learn how to deal with their problems, and they need to learn virtues of patience and delayed gratification. This may be one of the most important aspects of screen time that parents need to be reminded of. These types of situations are when human interaction can’t be substituted for YouTube or Minecraft
It’s not all bad
With studies and research demonstrating the down sides of screens, there also seems to be a consensus among experts today: What kids are doing on screens is much more important than how much time they spend with screens.
Not all screen time is created equal, and many studies make exceptions for helpful screen content. For example, the ability to video chat with out-of-state family and friends is an incredible benefit for this generation, and engagement with other people—even if it is digital—is a positive activity that should be encouraged.
There are also games and videos that encourage kids to move or dance along with the characters on screen and shows that teach and encourage reading and discovering new vocabulary. Research suggests that interactive media—learn-to-read apps and electronic books—may increase early literacy skills by providing practice with letters, phonics and word recognition.
Half of 3 to 5-year-olds in the U.S. stare at screens for more than two hours every day, which includes the quarter overall whose daily screen time exceeds four hours.
Some screen content is created simply to be fun, and that’s ok. However, parents of this generation would be wise to look for shows and apps that are designed to teach, engage and enhance children’s skills and development. For tips, resources and articles focused on helping parents make these decisions, check out Common Sense Media, PBS Kids and Sesame Workshop.
How much is OK?
Today’s kids and teens spend an average of more than seven hours a day in front of screens, and everyone agrees that is way too much. But what is an acceptable number?
Much of this research is in its early stages, and most studies have focused on children under 5-years-old. Still, a recent American Heart Association study gives us a target of two hours per day for children ages 8 to 18 and one hour per day for children ages 2 to 5. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends no screen time for children less than one year.
These goals may sound impossible and going from seven hours down to two would be a significant shift for most families. Remember, these are best-case-scenario suggestions. So how could you possibly get to that number? Here are some suggestions and things to remember.
Have dedicated unplugged time. Set up family rules about specific times and places when everyone will ditch the devices. Maybe you say no one—including mom and dad—can have phones at the dinner table, and everyone commits to putting them away an hour before bedtime.
One fun idea you could try: Set up a family charging station somewhere in the house other than bedrooms. Make a family rule that all phones and devices go in this station at whatever “regular” times you set, and maybe you consider one device-free Saturday a month where you intentionally spend time together without Instagram or YouTube.
Put the kids in charge. Some experts recommend giving kids a total allotment of screen time for the week, and then challenging them to come up with a plan of how they want to divide up the hours. Have them take ownership of the time and teach them to deal with consequences and time management.
Check stuff out first. Keep tabs on the content your kids are engaging with. If they regularly talk about specific shows or famous YouTubers, watch the shows yourself. Check out their apps and occasionally play their favorite games. This provides a few benefits: You can keep an eye out for inappropriate content. You can learn and keep up with their lingo and vernacular when they talk with friends. You can have further conversations.
Take learning off-screen. Talk with your kids about what they’re watching, especially if they are watching even moderately educational content. Try the game or app yourself first and then play it with your child. Afterward, ask your child what he or she learned. According to researchers, the eductaional value is enhanced when parents and children interact together with media.
Stick to your guns. Set rules for your family, and stick to them. Don’t bend, and don’t give in to the temptation to let kids go further than your agreement just because it’s easy. This is easier said than done, but an important part of parenting. Teach your kids that you are in charge, you have rules and there are consequences when they veer away from those rules.
Don’t feel guilty. Parenting is an adventure in constantly doing the best you can. If there are days and moments when you need a break and nothing else is cutting it, it’s ok to let your kids veg and watch an episode or two of whatever they’re into on YouTube. As with most things in life, moderation is the key. If you’re being intentional enough to read this article, you’re probably also intentionally setting enough limits to where you won’t ruin your kids’ lives. We know you want what is best for your kids, so keep up the good work, mom and dad.
Yes, screen time can be harmful, but so can just about anything else. Find ways to motivate your kids to go outside and unplug. Set a few rules, stick to them the best you can and give yourself (and your kids) a little grace. And don’t worry about those perfect Instagram moms who seem to judge and shame you. They’re in the exact same boat you’re in, and no one has mastered this yet.
Adapted and excerpted from “The Guilt-Free Parenting Guide to Screen Time” by Ridgepoint Church creative arts staff.