Should I be worried about my child’s screen time?
by Matthew Jenkins
The rise of smartphones, tablets, and other devices has made it easier for people of all ages to access the internet and use digital media, but there are concerns about the impact this increased screen time may have on the development and well-being of children, and particularly young people who can seem permanently glued to their devices. For example, typically, college students unlock their phones 50 times a day, using them for close to 4½ hours out of every 24-hour cycle. The increased use of technology and screens by children and young people has been a topic of much debate, leading to some dramatic headlines (‘The addiction of children to their mobile phones could threaten the fabric of society’ Daily Mail, August 2016). It is also a worry for parents, who often feel unsure how to tackle this issue, and what is reasonable.
So, are mobile phones and other connected screens used by young people a threat to society? Or is this a moral panic comparable to the fears in the 50s that rock and roll was a threat to society, or increased television watching in the 70s? And how can you navigate this territory as a parent, particularly with older children and teenagers.
One of the main concerns expressed in relation to increased screen time is the potential negative impact on children’s and young people’s mental health. Some have pointed out that the increase in anxiety and depression in young people has coincided with a shift to the prevalent use of mobile devices by young people; particularly for social media.
Some studies have suggested a link between excessive screen and feelings of anxiety and depression. Some suggested explanations for this link are that the constant stimulation provided by screens can make it difficult for children to relax and unwind, and that screen time is linked with social media usage and other online platforms that can have a negative impact on self-esteem and body image. When teenagers have their phones taken away, they become highly anxious (and visibly agitated within just a few minutes). (1)
Other studies have suggested increased screen time can also have an impact on children’s cognitive, emotional, and social development. One study indicated extra screen time correlated with less sleep in children. However, links between digital screen time and paediatric sleep outcomes were modest, accounting for less than 1.9% of observed variability in sleep outcomes, and the researchers concluded that ‘digital screen time, on its own, has little practical effect on paediatric sleep’.
Another argument is that excessive screen use can lead to problems with attention and memory, and can make it more difficult for children and young people to learn and retain new information. The average adolescent or young adult finds it difficult to study for 15 minutes at a time; when forced to do so, they will spend at least five of those minutes in a state of distraction. (1) Young children in particular need ‘live company’ and lots of attuned interaction to stimulate their development. Unstructured play is more beneficial for a young child’s developing brain than is electronic games and media. Children younger than age 2 are more likely to learn when they interact and play with parents, siblings, and other children and adults.
However, despite these concerns, other researchers have pointed to the importance of mobile phones for young people to maintain communication and connectedness, enabling social interactions that are not limited by place. ‘Young people use their mobile phones as a way of expressing their sense of self and as a means of communicating quickly between peers.’ (2) It is argued that this is in line with adolescent developmental needs, namely, to create their own self-identity or individuation away from parents (i.e. through friendship/peer connectedness); and two, the fundamental need to communicate and to be connected with peers.
Screen time also has some other potential positive benefits. These include:
- Access to information: This can help children and young people learn and explore new topics, and also gain knowledge about the world.
- Educational opportunities: Adolescents can use technology and the internet to access educational resources and online learning opportunities, which can be particularly beneficial for those who have difficulty learning in traditional classroom settings.
- Career opportunities: Adolescents can use technology and the internet to explore career options and connect with professionals in different fields, which can be particularly beneficial for those who are trying to decide on a career path.
- Improving skills: Adolescents can use technology and the internet to improve their skills in areas such as coding, graphic design, and digital media production.
What can you do as a parent?
The first thing to recognise is that screen time is not one thing, it is many things. For example, focussed research online for a school project is not the same as distracted social media scrolling. Here are some suggestions for how you can help your children to navigate the digital world in a healthy and productive way:
- Preview programs, games, and apps before allowing your child to view or play with them.
- Use parental controls to block or filter inappropriate internet content.
- Have your child close by during screen time so that you can supervise his or her activities.
- Avoid fast-paced programming, which young children have a hard time understanding, violent content and apps with a lot of distracting content such as adverts.
- Share screen time with your child to make it more interactive.
- Have some clear rules and limits. These can be negotiated but once agreed should be stuck to.
- Try to encourage digital literacy and build understanding about different kinds of screen time.
- Create some tech free zones or times e.g. meal times or particularly in the hour before bedtime.
- Set and enforce screen time limits (this can be automated through parental controls on some devices).
- Try to avoid screens in your child or young person’s bedroom.
- Talk to your child regularly about their internet and screen use.
- The distracted student mind — enhancing its focus and attention Larry D. Rosen, October 1, 2017
- Adolescent use of mobile phones: A social context Dr J-F, Dr Darren Pullen, and Dr Karen Swabey University of Tasmania, Australia