The dreaded screen time debate can feel like a never-ending battle. Kids want more of it, but parents want them to have less. So much of our lives involve technology that it’s almost impossible to avoid. We now rely on it for learning and social interaction, not just for fun.
It can be hard to find the right balance or even know what “balanced” looks like. The negativity surrounding kids and screen time adds to the guilt and uncertainty. How much is too much? At what point is it harmful?
Maybe it’s time for some good news that could help set your mind at ease. New studies show that technology might not be as bad for your kids as initially thought, and it’s the quality—not the quantity—of screentime that really counts.
What Do We Know About the Effects of Screen Time on Kids?
Parents aren’t alone because even scientists are torn about this topic. It might sound like there’s solidarity on the topic, but that’s not the case. Many psychologists disagree with the conclusions formed from the available studies.
Why? Research hasn’t been extensive enough, the results are conflicting, and there’s little proof that screentime is the actual cause of behavioral and mental problems.
A Lack of Research
Technology is relatively new. There hasn’t been enough time to do long-term conclusive studies. Unfortunately, time isn’t the only issue. It’s hard to find parents that would allow a mandatory six hours of screentime a day or say, none at all, for an extended period.
There are other problems as well. Much of the research is correlational, cross-sectional, or based on self-report. Studies have relied on the parent’s and child’s observations and feelings, leading to a greater risk for biased and skewed data.
Conflicting Results and New Information
How many times have you heard that screen time can disrupt a child’s sleep? Or that too much screentime can make your child moody or depressed? While based on previous studies and accepted as truth, researchers are now coming to other conclusions.
How much are a child’s mood and sleep actually affected?
One recent study found that sleep disruption in children is minimal—on average, only 3 to 8 minutes less per hour of screen time.. Some kids may be more sensitive than others, so know what your child can handle. Using a blue light blocker can help, along with cutting off screentime one hour before bed. Overall, it’s more beneficial to focus on a bedtime routine and a consistent wake-up time.
How about the effects on moodiness? According to a study, it would take over five hours of device-based screen time before caregivers or parents notice an increase in psychosocial functioning.
Does It Cause Depression and Anxiety?
The link between screen time and a child’s or teen’s mental health is also being questioned. Studies have not produced consistent results and fail to show a causal relationship, leaving researchers to question the correlation.
What came first, the chicken or the egg? Likewise, is an adolescent struggling with mental health issues because of too much screentime? Or is the child using more screentime because of mental health issues? Correlation doesn’t mean causation. Kids dealing with depression and anxiety might simply be more likely to over-use their phones.
Why Quality Over Quantity Is the New Focus
Screen time is often lumped into one category, but researchers are finding that it’s not all equal. The subject goes deeper than a simple “good” or “bad.”
Think of it as food. Not all food affects the body the same way. Some things are highly beneficial, others just a little, and some are detrimental or even harmful.
Time has to be taken into account as well. Eating a few cookies one day is different than eating a few cookies multiple times a day, every day, for years. Short-term effects are not nearly as concerning as the long-term changes that can take place.
So, what kind of screentime is the “healthier” choice? It’s broken down into two categories: active and passive.
Active Screen Time
Interactive programs and games will engage the brain and cause the child to think. It can be video games, videos, chatting, active learning apps, or anything that encourages thought, creativity, and problem-solving skills.
Passive Screen Time
This is the idle time when the child “vegges out” doing things like scrolling through social media and watching shows or movies. These things can still be enjoyed once in a while but need to be done in moderation. It’s this passive screentime that can negatively affect children.
It’s Not Always Black and white
This makes it easy, right? Wrong. It is easier to make decisions based on whether screentime is active or passive, but it doesn’t end there. Sometimes, a game or video might look educational but offer little value.
Likewise, something might look like idle time but be highly educational. Navigating through this complex topic is impossible without considering quality, but it takes determination and time to dig deeper.
The Surprising Benefits of Screen Time for Kids
Kids are surrounded by technology and are bound to interact with it, despite the negative attention it draws. Being aware of the positives can help you find balance. What are some ways kids benefit from active screen time?
Video games have a bad reputation and are often considered a waste of time, but they can fall into the active category. The benefits vary depending on the video game, but most are associated with the following:
- Visual processing
- Hand-eye coordination
- Spatial processing
- Social interaction
Some shows might be marketed as educational but fall short in reality. However, most strive to provide quality content for kids and help with the following:
- Color, number, and letter recognition
- Character development
- Exposure to places and cultures
Technology use can also help a child become tech-savvy—an invaluable skill for the future. Kids are better at adapting to new things. Growing up with technology gives them the chance to become familiar with it while learning self-regulation.
When Active Screen Time Isn’t Good Enough
Children under two need more than interactive games and videos. Their symbolic, memory, and attention skills are not mature enough to learn from digital media. They are unable to transfer what’s on the screen to real life. At this age, a child’s cognitive, language, motor, social, and emotional skills are developed through personal interactions and hands-on play.
This doesn’t mean young kids should never have screentime, but it should be minimal and used as a time to connect.
The Negative Impact of Screen Time
Of course, there needs to be a balance. While screen time might not be bad, there are still plenty of potential problems to be aware of. Often the negatives are listed as if they stand alone when they are usually symptoms of underlying issues.
What’s one of the biggest problems? Screentime takes away from real-life activities.
Obesity, moodiness, sleep-deprivation, and lack of concentration become issues when screentime replaces healthy habits and activities. It’s not the technology that’s dangerous but what we allow it to replace. Kids are less active, staying up too late, and distracted because of it. Adults are guilty of this, too.
However, parents shouldn’t throw out current advice regarding screentime. It’s too soon to know the long-term effects, but there’s wisdom in moderation. Kids should be encouraged to play, be active, and even be bored. Boredom is a precursor to creativity.
“We have to be flexible enough to evolve with the technology but choose how to use it right. Fire was a great discovery to cook our food, but we had to learn it could hurt and kill as well, ” said Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, associate professor of pediatrics at HMS, and associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Children and teens can learn to self-regulate by paying attention to how they feel. Everyone can learn to “unplug” by taking inventory of their time, focusing on goals, and finding real-life adventures.
What to Do When You Think There Is an Addiction
Does your child get upset when you try to take away the tablet or phone? Does your child want to use it often and seem to prefer it? Don’t worry. That doesn’t mean there’s an addiction. It could be a matter of frustration.
Children, like adults, can have a hard time suddenly switching tasks. Interruptions can be upsetting, so let your child ease into it. Give a five or ten-minute “warning” that time is almost up. Talk to them, drawing them out of their “zone” to help ease the transition.
What if that doesn’t work? What if screentime starts to cause more significant problems?
8 Signs of Screen Dependency Disorder
Naturally, addiction is a concern for parents as they watch their children stare mindlessly at a screen and become angry when it’s time to turn it off. If you think your child struggles with control, here’s what to look for, according to Neurohealth Associates:
- Increased tolerance
- Failure to reduce or stop screentime
- Loss of other interests
- Continues despite negative consequences
- Lying about use
- Uses to escape adverse moods
Screen Dependency Disorder and Your Child’s Health
This disorder can negatively impact your child’s health, both short and long-term. What are some of the problems it can cause?
Short-Term Health Problems
- back pain
- weight gain or loss
- vision problems
- feelings of guilt and loneliness
Long-Term Health Problems
When addicted, a child’s brain will lose tissue in the frontal lobe, striatum, and insula over time. How does that specifically affect behavior and growth? This tissue loss can cause a child to struggle with:
- Planning and organization
- Suppressing socially unacceptable impulses
- Developing compassion and empathy
7 Steps to Help Break the Screen Time Cycle
Real addiction is rare, but there will probably be a time when your child needs a detox. You might decide there needs to be less screentime overall, or maybe everyone needs a break. How can you make this transition easier? After all, no one wants unnecessary drama.
- Create a plan. Talk with your child(ren), discuss concerns, and get everyone’s feedback.
- Pick a start date. Set a future date, giving children time to accept the plan.
- Make a list of alternative things to do. Be prepared for the inevitable “I’m bored.” Bins of toys, games, crafts, and books can encourage play.
- Keep devices out of sight. There will be less temptation if they’re out of view.
- Play with your child. Some kids need a boost, and your involvement will make them want to play even more.
- Be a good role model. Kids will mimic your behavior, so limit your own screentime.
- Create new routines. Kids often use screentime out of habit. Find the times your child is most likely to use it, and help fill in that space with something else.
How to Find a Balance That’s Right for Your Family
Families are different, so what works for one won’t necessarily work for the other. Don’t feel like you have to base your guidelines around what others do. You know your kids better than anyone.
Here are a few tips for finding the right balance. Remember, you will probably need to make adjustments as your kids grow.
- Be involved. Kids learn more when a parent or caregiver is actively engaging with them during screen time. It’s a great way to connect with your child. Plus, you’ll know what they’re watching and playing, giving you better insight and control.
- Have tech-free zones and times. This might be while eating, before bed, or after school. Find specific times and places where screen time is not allowed. Choose what works best for your family’s schedule.
- Avoid multi-tasking. Forcing the brain to do multiple things at once results in poor quality work. Encourage kids to focus on one thing at a time.
- Teach awareness and self-regulation. Teach your child the difference between active and passive screentime. Help them become aware of their feelings while playing games or watching programs.
- Give them some control. It seems counter-intuitive, but this will teach them responsibility and diminish the feeling that screen time is “special.” If it’s used as a reward or treat, kids will only want it more. Normalize screentime, and kids will get bored with it after a while.
- Get expert advice. Many helpful resources can help you set up a plan for your family. Know the current policies and recommendations stated by pediatricians and psychologists.
Remember, no one knows your child as you do. Balance and control will come naturally if you set a good example, stay involved, and find alternative family activities.
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