For most of us, the COVID-19 pandemic gave us some new best friends: our screens. During lockdown, screens allowed us to stay connected with people and gave many of us a way to continue to “go to work” and earn a livelihood. Screens gave children a way to continue to attend school. More than ever we turned to screens for entertainment and escape. It was such a unique period that the American Academy of Pediatrics relaxed its guidelines for screen time. As we embraced the advantages that screens and technology offered, we adapted remarkably quickly: we started spending more and more time with our screens.
Three years later, we now find ourselves in the “new normal” of day-to-day life with COVID provided largely by the rapidly developed COVID vaccines. Interestingly, while our lives have in many ways gone back to how they were pre-pandemic, the time kids (and adults) spend in front of screens still appears to be more than it was pre-pandemic. Unfortunately, this shift towards more screen time is often unhelpful, particularly for our kids.
The adage “less is more” gets thrown around when it comes to kids and screens, but that kind of standard is vague and unhelpful. Parents may feel like they are striving toward an unreachable goal, constantly feeling “bad” or “guilty” for not limiting screen time enough.
Choices around screen use are nuanced and personal. Finding a balance of what works and is sustainable depends on so many variables such as a child’s age, temperament, availability of caregivers, schedules, and a particular family’s values, for a start. It’s true that children, especially young ones, benefit physically, socially, and emotionally when they have less screen time. But the details in the research are as interesting as they are empowering. Knowing some of the specifics around screen time can help you make clear, informed, positive choices around how you approach it in your family.
Effects of Screen Time
Research continues to show us that too much screen time can negatively affect kids physically, emotionally, and socially, but it varies by developmental stage.
- Infants and children develop vision–how the brain interprets what the eyes see–by interacting with the three-dimensional world. Learning from two-dimensional screens is different. Under the age of 3, children learn less from screens than they do from real life demonstrations. This discrepancy is important to note because by the age of 2, 90% of children in the United States are watching television on a daily basis.
- “Screen time lends itself to more sedentary time and less physical activity, snacking while distracted, eating in the absence of hunger, and greater exposure to food advertising.” None of these behaviors is helpful to growth, nourishment, or creating healthy patterns into adulthood.
- More time on screens means less time outside. Studies continue to show that when kids spend less time outdoors, they may be at a greater risk of of developing myopia (nearsightedness). In addition to possibly increasing the risk of myopia, screen time can cause kids to suffer from eye strain, headaches, dry eyes, and other symptoms.
- A recent study found that frequent use of tablets, smartphones, and other screens to calm children between the ages of 3 and 5 was related to increased emotional dysregulation, especially in boys. The dysregulation included rapid shifts between feeling sad and excited, greater impulsiveness, and other sudden mood changes.
- For adolescents, spending more time on screens (movies, gaming, video chat, social media, web browsing and more) can increase depression and anxiety and decrease their ability to cope.
- More screen time is associated with lower psychological well-being among children and adolecents. “High users show less curiosity, self-control, and emotional stability.”
- Increased screen time in toddlers is associated with decreased social skills. Specifically, between the ages of 1 and 4 years, increased screen time was associated with a decreased ability to relate to and interact with other children and a decreased ability to follow rules and take direction.
- For some adolescents and teens, more screen time may mean more time alone, increased emphasis on materialism, and more insecurity and comparison with others. The antidote to all of these negative impacts is real-life social connection. On the other hand, where an adolescent or teen is feeling alone because of sexual orientation or gender identity reasons, for example, finding connections online can be a lifeline.
How Much is Too Much?
Current guidelines on how much screen time is acceptable for what age are somewhat inconsistent. The WHO recommends no screen time for children before the age of 3. The American Academy of Pediatrics used to recommend no screens under the age of 18 months except for video chats and less than 2 hours for children 5 and up. They relaxed the guidelines in 2020, and now they simply recommend families create their own plan.
For very young children, from ages 0-5, following a “not yet” model for screens might make sense for your family, especially if screens haven’t been introduced yet. If this idea sounds unattainable given your circumstances, it’s time to begin evaluating types of screen time as you follow any of the above guidelines.
As Common Sense Media lays out, there are several different kinds of screen time:
- Passive: mindlessly watching videos or shows, scrolling, on autopilot
- Interactive: playing games, problem-solving, homework, research
- Communication: video-chatting, using social media
- Content creation: making digital art or music, coding
You’ll want to pay attention to how your kids act during and after participating in any of these types of screen time. And during “passive” screen time, watching with your child (rather than letting them watch alone) is a generally a far better choice because you can connect in real time about what you are seeing.
If your child is using high-quality and age-appropriate content, behaving positively and is balancing it well with sleep, family, friends, and time outdoors, you’ve hit a sweet spot. But remember, your choices will require ongoing adjustments, conversations, and transitions over time. Keeping a couple of hard boundaries, such as no screens at meals or in the bedroom, will probably make sense, but beyond that, the key is not simply monitoring screen use, but providing mentoring around it. Consider asking questions like: What kinds of apps are your kids interested in? What benefits do they offer? How can you help your kids leverage those benefits? Being ready to talk to and support your kids when they encounter bullying, porn, or any other questionable online content is crucial. It’s also important to help guide your kids to evaluate for themselves how they feel after using certain types of technology for various periods of time, so they can begin to get a sense of how to self-regulate. The book, Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, offers even more suggestions for how to raise responsible digital citizens.
Let GetzWell Help!
There are so many issues around screens, phones, social media, group chats, texting and more that arise as kids grow into adolescents and teens. If you’re interested in specific suggestions on how to address phone use with your kids, check out this podcast episode. It offers some ways to talk to kids about using phones and apps in accordance with their values. Above all, though, stay connected to your kid, keep the lines of communication between you and your kid open, and know that even though it’s challenging, at GetzWell, we are rooting for you and eager to help. We can advise you on what makes sense developmentally, help you troubleshoot, and support you as you make adjustments.