“I don’t know what to do about my kids’ use of screens.” The mother who was talking to me was clearly worried. When asked to be more specific, she replied, “When I try to tear them away from the computer or the TV, they act like I’m tearing off a leg. When I tell the older ones to get off their cell phones, you’d think I was sentencing them to life on a desert island. I feel like they are out of control!”
This mom is right to be concerned. According to a statement put out by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the average 8-year-old spends eight hours and teenagers often spend more than 11 hours daily using various forms of media. More than three-quarters of teenagers have cell phones, and teens ages 13 to 17 send an average of 3,364 texts per month.
Yes, there are positive outcomes. Kids and parents are in more communication. Because they can quickly get in touch, cell phones do help keep our children safe. The Internet gives our kids access to more information than ever before. Shows like Sesame Street and programs on the History and Nature Channels are educational. And a study published in 2016 shows that toddlers achieve fine motor skills development more quickly if they interact with a touchscreen, such as a tablet or smartphone (Bedford et al, 2016).
It’s also true that excessive screen use has now been connected to childhood obesity, bullying, struggles in school due to problems with distractibility, attention and concentration, sleep disturbance, access to pornography and graphic violence and huge amounts of advertising that promote consumerism and standards for what’s “hot” and what’s not.
In response to mounting evidence of the potential harmfulness of excessive time on screens, the U.S. Department of Health recommended in 2013 that children under 2 years of age should not be in front of a screen at all. Children aged 2-5 years should have no more than an hour a day, and children aged 5-18 years should have no more than two hours a day. Some experts don’t count homework time; it’s filling leisure time with screens that causes problems.
Since that time, professional pediatric associations and researchers have recognized the inevitability of toddlers having screen time with a tablet or smart phone. Recommendations since 2016 have suggested that parents generally limit toddlers (under age 2) time in front a tablet or smart phone, unless the parent or another adult is interacting with them. The most recent guidelines suggest under an hour a day is probably best for those under 2, because even just 30 minutes a day can negatively impact a toddler’s sleep patterns.
If your children’s time on screens (computers, game consoles, tablets, TV, cell phones) is out of control, it’s time to reassert your right as a parent to raise your children in a healthy way. Establish some reasonable rules for media use and stick to them. Set clear consequences for misuse and follow through. It’s our responsibility as parents to help our children learn to use screens wisely.
7 Basic Guidelines for Managing Screen Use
- Keep the TV and computer in a public place.
Take a look at what they are doing as you walk by. If your kids don’t take you seriously about permissible shows and games, go a step further. Put a clamshell padlock on the plugs, set the privacy settings on the computer and set up a password for use that only you know.
- Monitor use of social media.
Most kids simply don’t get it that what goes online stays online. It’s essential to talk to our kids about what to do about sexting, cyber-bullying and unwanted communications — whether sending it or receiving it. Don’t be in denial about it. These things will happen.
Maintain access to your kids’ Facebook accounts and talk about the rules around posting pictures, interacting with friends, and communicating with strangers. Make it clear what kinds of sites are strictly off limits. (By the way: Facebook does not permit children under age 13 to have accounts. We shouldn’t either.) Periodically check your child’s history on the computer and cell phone.
- Do not allow screens to be constantly running in the background.
If children are to learn how to focus, they need undistracted time at home. When computers or TVs are left on all the time, the kids’ attention will be constantly pulled toward them — regardless of what else they are supposed to be doing. If you simply must have background noise to function, turn on a radio — softly.
- Get screens out of the bedroom.
One national survey found that 50 percent of kids ages 6 – 11 and 70 percent of teens have a TV in their bedroom. Thirty-four percent of five- to 15-year-olds now have their own tablet. A 2010 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 31 percent of kids 8 – 10 years old have their own cell phones, as do 69 percent of kids from 11 – 14 and 85 percent of teens between ages 14 – 17.
When TVs, gaming consoles and tablets are in their bedrooms, kids, being kids, will use them. When kids surf the Internet in their bedroom, they are more vulnerable to predators and more likely to get in trouble on the Web. Teens who sleep with their phones (4 out of 5 of them do) are often texting and talking off and on through the night and losing valuable sleep.
- Make what the kids are watching on TV a clear choice.
Plan ahead with the kids about what they will watch. When the show is over, turn the TV off and encourage other kinds of activity.
- Turn off TV and put aside all cell phones during dinner.
Studies have repeatedly shown that families that have dinner and conversation together several times a week – without cell phones – are closer and more engaged in each others’ lives.
- Do not allow TV watching, surfing the Net, or using cell phones during homework time.
To learn from doing homework (which is the point of homework after all), kids need to focus on it. They can’t very well do that if they are clicking back and forth from assignment to Facebook to assignment to their latest video game to their phone. They can’t do it very well if they are distracted by the latest episode of Modern Family or The Bachelor on the TV.
Family rules are intended to teach, not just to control. As with all things parental, good modeling and thoughtful teaching are the best strategies for helping children develop good judgment about when, where, and how to use electronic devices.
Bedford, R., de Urabain, I. R. S., Cheung, C. H., Karmiloff-Smith, A., & Smith, T. J. (2016). Toddlers’ fine motor milestone achievement is associated with early touchscreen scrolling. Frontiers in Psychology, 7
Kids watching TV photo available from Shutterstock