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Taming the Screen-Time Beast!

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

My first son was born in 1997. At that time, smart phones were science fiction. Xbox, Nintendo, Gameboy, ipod and ipad had not made their debut. Over the course of the next decade, as each new technology dropped into the mainstream, parents struggled to make good decisions around their use. There were no known parameters at that time, and little to no available research. Flash forward to 2018. The jury is in and the verdict is unanimous! Screens, in all their varying forms, are harming our kids. Most parents I talk to get it on principal, but express frustration and uncertainty on how to go about getting their kids off of it or at least figuring out how to significantly reduce its use.

I believe the first step in helping parents to confidently make changes is to educate and inform. Do we understand what is actually happening to developing brains as kids spend hours upon hours playing video games and carrying their phones around like a fifth appendage? My experience, when I share what I have learned, is that most parents are quite surprised by the research, and typically get quickly motivated to make immediate changes. The conflict then arises on how to make these changes. Parents are unsure of what is appropriate and are worried that if they limit too much their kids won’t be able to share in what their peers are doing and could become socially isolated as a result. It is a complicated and complex issue to be sure. As a matter of fact, recently Taiwan attempted to step in and set regulations around screen-time use for its citizens and came up with an ambiguous and undefined regulation that would be virtually impossible to enforce:

“The new regulation stipulates that juveniles ‘may not constantly use electronic products for a period of time that is not reasonable,’ according to the amendment.”

It makes sense that if an entire country, with all of its resources, can’t figure it out, it’s no surprise that individual parents would struggle as well.

Here are the current recommendations published by the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  1. For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.

  2. For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.

  3. For children ages 6 and older, 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.

  4. Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.

  5. Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

If those don’t convince you to make some changes, then perhaps knowing that the very people who help design and create this technology are prohibiting their own children from its use. In a recent New York Times article, it was reported that Kristin Stecher, a social computing researcher and her husband, Rushabh Doshi, a Facebook engineer, have created a no screen policy for their own daughters who are 5 and 3. In addition, the CEO of Apple stated publicly that he would not allow his own nephew to have social media, Bill Gates refused to give his children cell phones until they were teens and Steve Jobs made sure his children had no access to iPads. What the people on the inside are keenly aware of is the addictive nature of these devices, one executive said it is more like crack cocaine than candy. Moreover, these tech insiders have long had access to the brain research that clearly links the overuse of screens to impaired cognitive function, not to mention increased anxiety and depression.

I wish I could tell you that I always had clear policies around phones and screen time with my own children but unfortunately that was not the case. I too struggled and still struggle with setting clear boundaries and don’t always follow through as well as I would like. However, any small change is better than no change at all, and once one step is implemented it gets easier to add new ones.

To illustrate this point, I’ll share a story about my youngest son. In the fall of his freshman year in high school, he had broken a rule (I’ll respect his privacy here and leave out the incriminating details.) He had to hand over his phone for 2 weeks. We were driving home from school late into the first week and he looked at me and said, “Mom, I feel cleansed!” referring to life without his phone. This led to a really thoughtful discussion and opened the door for a new policy of “no phone in the car to and from school” which we still enforce a year later. I was surprised he didn’t push back at all, and I was reminded of how our kids really do want us to set clear boundaries, and are counting on us to be their fearless leaders.

So go forth bravely moms and dads, tame the beast, your kids will thank you for it (at least some day they will!)


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