Technology and Screens: Good? Bad? Both? Neither?
Technology is amazing. It is one of the ways that we measure our advancement as a society. The internet was probably the largest step we took in that advancement; suddenly information from around the globe was just one click away. More recent advancements have made the internet more accessible with tablets, smart phones, and other portable electronics.
This greater accessibility calls for an adjustment in our conversation about screen time, or how often we (or our children) spend looking at screens, including televisions, smart phones, and tablets. In their position statement on media use for school-aged children and adolescents, the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) found that children who watch 5 or more hours of television per day are 5 times more likely to be obese than children who watch 0-2 hours per day.1 Children with obesity are at a higher risk for developing secondary conditions including type II diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Another risk of excessive screen time is poor sleep quality, and children who are exposed to activity from screens before bed are found to have altered melatonin levels, which in turn affects how well they sleep.1 Poor sleep can lead to decreased performance in academics and sports, as well as decreased immune function. Other risks include cyberbullying, mental health issues (gaming addiction, etc.), and privacy violations.1 This article on the AAP website provides more information and research about all of the risks, benefits, and what we can do to optimize kids’ screen time.
Obviously, there are a lot of great aspects to device use: exposure to new ideas and information, awareness and promotion of community events, communication with loved ones who are far away and with teams for projects (to name a few).1 It would be silly to cut out screens all together, but how much is too much? And how can parents ensure that their kids have a balance between screen time and active play? The AAP recently updated their recommendations for infants through adolescents:2
- Babiesup to 18 months old: Video chatting only (traveling parent, distant relative, etc.)
- Toddlers 18 to 24 months old: High-quality programming that babies and parents view together
- Preschoolers, 2 to 5 years old: No more than one hour a day of high-quality programming, viewed together
- Kids ages 6 and up: No specific time limit. Instead, parents should “place consistent limits on the time spent using media and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.”2
Some of these recommendations are a bit vague as far as a time limit, however, the AAP provides a Family Media Planning Website to help you and your family decide what works for your lifestyle. More information on this is at the end of the article. Now that you have an idea for the guidelines, how can you actually enforce them in a way that everyone wins?
Set Up Your Environment
Eliminate the potential for sleep problems and screen-overload by charging devices in a common space overnight.2 The investment in alarm clocks is worth your child’s health and performance. Plus, it may even create an incentive for your kids to get out of bed on time in the morning! Along with taking smart phones out of bedrooms, take televisions and computers out as well.2 Having these devices in common spaces allows for better monitoring as a parent (age-appropriate websites, cyberbullying, etc.), and encourages sharing between family members.
With your screens primarily in common spaces, do not turn on the television as “background noise.”2 Instilling early that television, computers, tablets, and smart phones are used with purpose, as opposed to habit, will rapidly decrease the overstimulation that comes with too much screen time. Less background noise also encourages communication, as no one has to talk over noise or be distracted from listening actively.
One of the main reasons why screen time is associated with child obesity is because that time often eclipses active play. Being proactive and setting up play-dates, family trips, or in-home activities is a great way to get kids up and moving. Some examples are trips to a local park, a family walk around the neighborhood, getting everyone involved in cooking dinner or making dessert, or setting up crafts to display around the house.
There is also an option to make screen time active. Try out active video games, like Wii sports or Xbox Kinect, or flip the roles and have them make a movie or reenact a scene/skit themselves!2 The CDC recommends that kids participate in at least 60 minutes of activity per day;4 make it fun!
Provide Age-Appropriate Structures
Before putting structures in place, it is important to discuss with your family the risks and benefits of screen time, as well as create agreements around device location(s), intentional use, and how much time is appropriate for use.
Younger children do very well with routines. For example, allowing your child to watch 30 minutes of television in the morning while you get ready and 30 minutes in the evening while you cook dinner.3 Another variation on this is to set particular days that the television can be on. On those days, kids can pick their shows, and on any other day parents can pick (preferably something more educational).3 The key to success is consistency; the moment negotiation comes into play, parents will have to decide whether to hold their ground or develop a new structure (like one of the ones below!).
As kids get older, it is harder to keep a consistent routine. Token-systems can be useful in this case: the child receives tokens for completing tasks, chores, exhibiting good behaviors, etc. and each token represents an amount of screen time (let’s say, 15 minutes). The child is then able to exchange the tokens for the allotted time.3 This is not only a great way to track screen time, but also a way to teach kids about currency and self-discipline.
Another suggestion is to have kids justify their use of screens.3 This goes back to creating intentionality and purpose behind using technology and gives kids the opportunity to reflect on what they really want to accomplish and potentially explore other means of accomplishing that. For example, your teenager may want to watch a TV show in order to relax after a tough sports practice. When he/she is present to wanting to relax, he/she may decide that listening to music or baking cookies would also provide relaxation, thus having more options. The key to this one is to remain an open space; this is not about demonizing screens or the parent deciding if their kids’ reasons are “good enough.” It is about providing a moment of introspection. Practices such as these will pull forward throughout your child’s life and enhance their emotional intelligence and creativity.
An important note on all of these structures: as a parent, you will be required to reassess your own screen time and set an example for your family. The AAP Family Media Plan mentioned above (and below) is for the whole family, not just children. One of the distinctions of being a parent is being accountable for everyone following the agreements around screen time. It is within the scope of this accountability that screen time tracking apps can be a useful structure. Especially as kids get older and they acquire devices of their own and have more commitments, it can become unrealistic to only have screens in common places or even be present when your child is using said screens. Screen time tracking apps allow for monitoring of content, time, and even location of family members’ smart phones. Below, I have listed six (in no particular order) that may work for your family.
This app has a lot! Parental control for time limits (including scheduling), app approval and usage information, and search history. There are also features like “instant pause” (pause your child’s device), “free play” (overriding settings temporarily), and task setting (set tasks to complete and reward with extra time). It works on tablets and smart phones with both Android and iOS.
This one is available for iOS devices only (iPad, iPhone, iPod). It helps parents limit screen time and includes elements to increase awareness and self-discipline in children. Avatars provide a visual of the negative effects of screen time for kids, and they are rewarded for stopping their activity on time.
This app can be synced across devices to provide consistency for screen time. Similar to other apps, it has features to set schedules and time limits, block and unblock instantly, and rewards for tasks. Additionally, this app includes a messaging feature that enables parents to message kids (like when dinner is ready, etc.). It is available for Android and iOS.
Control up to 15 devices with this app! It works for platforms such as Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, and Kindle. Qustodio provides all of the control features above, as well as monitors for texts and calls, location tracking, and panic alerts.
If your family already uses Norton Security, upgrading to their Premium plan will include parental control on top of their usual privacy, virus, and malware protection. There is an option to use the parental control app on its own, which provides supervision of time, searches, web browsing, texts, and videos, as well as email alerts, and monthly and weekly reports. This app will work on both Android and iOS devices.
As mentioned above, the AAP offers a structure for your family to understand their screen-usage and create a workable plan for everyone. It does require entering names and ages of family members, and all information is kept private and confidential. This is a great way to assess individual and family device usage and start the conversation about safe and intentional use of devices.
To wrap all of this up, mitigating the risks and enhancing the benefits of device use for kids is an intentional conversation and plan that families should explore. Monitoring screen time through changing the environment, providing active alternatives, and/or putting in age-appropriate structures (which may include the use of a screen time limiting app), can be effective in keeping your family healthy and connected. Get your family together today, and start having these important conversations. Cheers!