For most parents, it’s tough to imagine life without a smart phone. After all, this little device contains our calendars, directions to birthday parties, favorite music, and provides instant communication with family and friends. In short, this device is the glue that holds our lives together.
However, as technology becomes more ubiquitous, we have become immersed in a world of screens- iPads, computers, smart phones, video game systems, and televisions – to name a few. Kids today have been born into a digital world, such that many consider today’s youth a digital generation.
According to pediatrician Hilda Kabali, M.D., in an article on the American Academy of Pediatrics, “More than one third of babies are tapping on smartphones and tablets even before they learn to walk or talk, and one in seven toddlers is using devices for at least an hour a day.” Technology certainly positively impacts our lives in many ways – access to information is quicker, easier, more abundant- but we are just beginning to see the potential consequences of spending so much time in front of screens.
There’s no doubt technology has revolutionized fields such as business, education, agriculture, and medicine, among others. These changes, positive as well as negative, have propelled us to a new dimension of thinking. But this dimension is wrought with unclear boundaries and potential dangers. One major side effect includes technology, or screen, addiction. Kids and adults alike can become addicted to technology use; but kids are especially vulnerable to this form of addiction.
Each day, it has become the norm for kids to play games on an iPad or video game console, read on a tablet, watch TV or online videos, or surf the Internet on a computer – at home, in the classroom, and in public. According to Common Sense Media, tweens, kids ages 8-12, average about 6 hours a day using technology while teens average 9 hours a day- not including time spent on media for school/homework (The Common Sense Census).
Participation in a digital world is ultimately an extension of reality for many kids. Their participation is expected. It’s a daily occurrence at home, school, and everywhere they go. But what happens when kids spend all this time in front of screens? Some kids don’t do well with the transition away from virtual reality, and many have difficulties with face-to-face communication. Still others will do whatever it takes to remain in front of a screen, even if it means deceiving family members and neglecting self-care.
Signs of Screen Addiction
According to Common Sense Media, mobile devices account for about half of all screen time used by tweens and teens. More specifically, 53% of tweens own their own tablet while 67% of teens own their own smartphone. When kids have access to devices and spend this much time with them, kids can become addicted. This is also true for adults and much younger children.
While addiction is a word with a strong, often negative connotation, it can be applied to more than just drugs and alcohol. Kids who suffer from screen addiction often experience psychological as well as physical stress when they are not permitted to have screen time. As a result, screen time can become an obsession and use can become consequently impulsive. It should be noted that boys and girls seem to maintain overall different screen time habits. More specifically, boys tend to spend more time playing video games while most girls gravitate toward social media. Kids ages 12-17, in general, spend a great deal of time texting. The average teen sends about 60 texts a day, according to the Pew Research Center.
Regardless of their screen vice, kids who are afflicted with this type of addiction experience disruptions in the quality of their day-to-day lives. Some will neglect their basic needs- taking a break to use the restroom or eating a meal, for example- to get to the next level in a game or because it is too difficult to come to an acceptable stopping point. Many will also rush through homework or chores, sometimes not performing to parental standards, in order to connect with a screen. In addition, some kids sleep with their cell phone under their pillow or in close proximity, feeling ill at ease when the device is not easily accessible. While there are several potential consequences, these same kids often have a difficult time making eye contact and sustaining in-person conversations.
Many parents report moodiness and/or anger as a major side effect of too much screen time. Perhaps sleep deprivation or poor sleep habits contribute to these feelings since many kids also ignore sleep cues in order to keep playing a video game, answer texts, or surf the Internet. Of course, many variables come into play here, but screen time before bed or in place of meeting basic needs can exacerbate symptoms. Still, screen addiction is a complex issue that is not always easy to unpack and explain.
Reasons Parents Turn to Screen Time
Since screens are ever-present and easy-to-access, many parents have come to rely on technology use as a parenting tool. After all, screens are effective at keeping kids quiet in restaurants, or occupied during phone calls. Babies will stop crying when handed a smart phone. In a word, screens are convenient. They get parents through long- and sometimes short- car rides, siblings’ Saturday morning basketball games, and the long wait after ordering food at a restaurant.
But most parents have awareness that too much screen time can become problematic, so often they insist on games or TV shows that are educational. It is this belief- a certain show, app, or game, for example- that justifies parents’ decisions to give kids the green light on screen time. From an early age, parents are bombarded with the message that their child will not be social or smart enough if he or she does not have access to the latest technology. This is likely why toddler TV stations were invented, and why many toys require batteries.
Screen Time Starts Early, But Hinders Language Development
Many parents allow infants and toddlers to play with real devices- tablets, smartphones, and computers, to name a few. But parents also give their very young children electronic toys that mirror these same devices. Starting out with toys like this, though, can set the foundation for a variety of challenges in the child’s coming years. One of the most significant drawbacks is delayed language development. According to Jama Pediatrics author Anna V. Sosa, PhD, “To promote early language development, play with electronic toys should be discouraged.” These are the toys that talk, beep, sing, dance, and “teach” kids their ABCs and 123s. Instead, infants and toddlers can better acquire language through face-to-face conversations and interactions with their parents and caregivers. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics ultimately discourages screen time for kids younger than two since this is a time of rapid brain growth.
Preventing Screen Addiction Starts with Parents
Because younger kids are most vulnerable to screen addiction, it is imperative that parents have awareness of preventative measures, as well as facts on how technology use can impact a child’s various dimensions of growth. It can be confusing, for example, when parents feel pressure to buy their kids toys that are technology-based so their kids won’t fall behind peers upon entering school.
Technology is a part of most families’ lives each day, so what can parents do to prevent screen addiction? Screen addiction doesn’t usually develop overnight. It is a process rooted in access to, and time with, screens. Perhaps one of the more significant influences on a child’s attitude toward technology use lies in his or her parents’ own screen time habits. As is the case with most other parenting issues, kids are watching the example parents set. When parents constantly check email or social media in their presence, kids take note. And when parents keep a phone on the kitchen table during dinner, kids learn what is important to their parents.
Setting Limits in the Pursuit of Balance
Technology is always changing, but parenting is, by and large, the same: Kids still need guidance and limits. Up until last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics maintained a strict stance on kids and screen time: no screen time for kids under two, fewer than two hours a day for older kids, and no screens in bedrooms. Realizing attitudes toward technology have changed and societal norms have shifted, the AAP revised their guidelines. These revised guidelines are meant to be a tool for parents in their quest to set limits and promote balance.
The key messages of the new guidelines, as outlined by AAP pediatrician, Ari Brown, M.D., et al, are as follows:
- Parents as Role Models– Parents must monitor their own technology use. Adults, too, can become addicted to screens, therefore parents must have this awareness so they can stay focused on interacting with their children instead of a screen. Parents and caregivers who concentrate on talking with their children are more likely to foster language development. Videos or virtual games, for example, cannot replace verbal interaction between kids and adults.
- Quality vs Time- The AAP recommends focusing on quality of content rather than how long kids are playing. Many parents feel guilty when they realize how long their kids have been in front of a screen; but it is more important to make certain kids are interacting with quality games, apps, videos, etc. For example, perhaps it is acceptable to spend more time playing a game that helps teach kids the U.S. presidents instead of getting lost in two hours of Candy Crush or Subway Surfer. Parents should review all apps, games, movies, etc. that kids have access to in order to check for appropriate content, as well as a balance of quality content. Parents can review apps, movies, video games, etc. at commonsensemedia.org. This website will give parents a recommended appropriate age range based on sexual content, language, consumerism, educational value, and positive role models, just to name a few.
- Technology Free Zones and Times- While the AAP has relaxed their stance on screen time, they want parents to remember the top priority for kids: play time. The dinner table and bedroom should be technology-free places in order to nurture healthy eating and sleep habits, as well as to encourage interaction with family members. The AAP emphasizes that placing screens in bedrooms puts kids at risk for early exposure to sexual content, inappropriate language, and excess consumerism. There is also a link between screens in bedrooms and obesity.
Other Tips to Consider:
-Create a family media policy or contract. Decide necessary time limits and determine which devices are permitted on a given day. Screen time does not have to be a given- it can be viewed as a privilege- at least at home.
-Consider installing time control apps on family devices. These apps will disable iPads or cell phones, for example, for a chosen timeframe.
-Power down all devices at least two hours before bedtime. This will encourage better sleep habits among all family members since the backlight from most devices can disrupt sleep patterns.
-It’s worth repeating- keep screens out of bedrooms. This especially means less portable items such as TVs or computers, but includes all electronic devices. All phones and tablets, for example, should be docked and charged in the kitchen or an area away from bedrooms.
-Placing a desktop computer in a common area such as the family room will allow parents to monitor screen time.
-If it is necessary to give a child under 12 years of age a phone, consider buying a flip phone or some other basic variation. Allowing younger children to own a smart phone puts them at risk for early exposure to inappropriate content as well as unchecked time in front of a screen.
-Participate in screen time WITH kids. This will allow parents to better understand the digital world in which many kids live.
-Brainstorm alternative activities as a family. Ideas might include going outside, reading, or playing board games.
Peaceful Coexistence with Screens
Without a doubt, technology has changed the way families play, learn, and interact. Parents don’t need to ban technology altogether, but moderation is imperative. Screens are here to stay and will continue to be a part of kids’ daily lives. Accordingly, parents can use the presence of technology as an opportunity to teach and model balance in use. Screen addiction is a very real issue that plagues many kids and their families; but this form of addiction can be prevented as well as treated. If parents observe signs of screen addiction, it is important to seek the guidance and evaluation of a health care or mental health care provider.