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The Parent’s Guide to Healthy Screen Time for Kids

If you’ve ever felt guilty for putting an iPad in your kid’s hands so you could have a few minutes to cook/clean/think, clinical psychologist David Anderson, Ph.D., will put you at ease. As the senior director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, Anderson translates research into practical guidelines that parents, schools, and others can use to enhance children’s mental health. Part of his work focuses on assessing what’s good and bad in the digital world—and what we can realistically do about the latter.

“We are not fearmongers,” Anderson says. “It’s not like, ‘Screens: Are they dangerous?’ Screens are here to stay, but not all screens are created equal. There are a lot of ways to work as parents in the modern age and have screens be a companion and not something you have to worry about so much.”

Anderson’s primer on negotiating and navigating screen time depending on your kids’ age is a good place for parents to start. (For more resources and to support the work that the Child Mind Institute is doing for kids and families coping with mental health and learning disorders, head to their site.)

A Q&A with David Anderson, Ph.D.

Q

What are the general guidelines for kids’ screen time?

A

There are definitely guidelines that should be followed related to certain concerns at certain stages of development. For example, giving infants under one year a lot of screen time may delay when they accomplish certain developmental tasks. There’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction in the way that kids are wired for social and language development. So we advise parents against popping an infant in front of a screen for an extended period of time. At the same time, it’s important not to let stories about the worst of what happens online dominate our thinking about screens. For example, the research indicates that most teens who use social media are not experiencing ill effects. They’re using screens to connect with their friends and communities with which they identify, for email and quick communication, and (hopefully) to organize themselves for school. There are still of course major risks related to cyberbullying or higher risk for anxiety and depression for kids who may be prone to these issues to begin with or who spend a lot of time on their phones. But because we know that adolescents and adults are going to have smartphones and use them both at home and at work, we’re thinking about how we can help people better interact with them.

We also emphasize the importance of considering the amount of time spent with screens, and we have research on this: A little time—say, one third or less of a kid’s free time—spent on screens can have a positive effect when it’s relaxing or used to connect with friends in ways that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. That actually helps with mental health. But if you have a kid who’s spending two thirds or more of his or her free time on a screen, that could negatively impact mental health. It could heighten the risk of anxiety, depression, substance use, or social isolation, not to mention that it might displace other developmental tasks.

It’s about approaching screen time from the point of view of moderation while also remaining mindful of what the research says about harmful effects for a small subset of the population.

Q

How can parents navigate screen time with kids throughout their childhood?

A

Toddlers

Limiting without Guilt

When we’re talking about young kids, we want to take an approach that is both thoughtful and methodical. We often refer back to the American Academy of Pediatrics and their guidelines for screen use, which are really focused on ensuring that kids are engaging in the tasks most important for their development. For very young kids, under the age of three, the guidelines tend to be centered around allowing either no screen time at all or very small amounts.

The issue is that we’re realists. For many parents of toddlers, there is a moment of fresh air at stake that we don’t want parents to feel incredibly guilty or shameful about. If having their three-year-old watch an episode of Sesame Street gives parents a moment to breathe and start preparing dinner, for example, that’s fine.

What researchers are doing is correlating the amount of time very young kids have spent on screens with certain developmental milestones. They’ve shown, for example, that spending more than two hours in front of screens a day increases toddlers’ chances of delayed speech development. We know that the most powerful tool for speech development in young children is being talked to frequently and read to by an adult in real life. Screens are not a substitute for that.

Preschool and Early Elementary

Building Boundaries

As kids enter preschool and early elementary school, we emphasize certain boundaries to parents: This is very early for a smartphone, and kids this age should not have computers or televisions in their room. At this age, kids are often trying to watch TV shows in the family room or play rudimentary games on their parents’ phones. This is when we want parents to model and begin to build healthy screen habits while remaining very well aware of what their children are doing on screens. Watch a movie or TV episode with them—you want to see what they’re watching and that the messages they’re receiving are in line with your family values. And according to research, not all screen time is created equal. Mediated viewing (watching an age-appropriate show with a parent and talking about it) can actually be a very important learning and relationship-building experience.

Think in terms of small doses of screens and set up family norms where there are no screens at dinner or no screens at mealtimes in general. There are times when it makes sense to use screens, like when you’re traveling and everyone needs to be distracted or in small doses on the weekends. But overall, it’s about making sure that children have time for all the tasks that are important for development, from playing outside to getting the right amount of sleep and enough face-to-face interaction with their friends.

“It’s about making sure that children have time for all the tasks that are important for development, from playing outside to getting the right amount of sleep and enough face-to-face interaction with their friends.”

For families building these commonsense screen plans, resources like ChildMind.org and CommonSenseMedia.org can help parents develop healthy habits to ensure that kids know life is not all about having a screen present, as well as guide parents on modeling appropriate screen behaviors for their kids. I can’t tell you how many conversations we have with parents where we say, “Okay, you’ve got a second grader, and you have a policy about no screens at the dinner table. Where’s your phone during dinner?” Often we’ll see a shameful look downward, and a parent will say, “Well, it’s face up on the table.” We’ll say, “Look, you’ve got time here: You can reform your own habits and model healthy screen behaviors for your kids.”

Late Elementary and Middle School

Smartphones and Social Media

As we get toward late elementary school, around age ten, we start to see kids requesting a smartphone or more time with a computer. At Child Mind, age ten is the absolute earliest we recommend any kid have any phone of any kind. And even then, it’s not their phone. It’s a gift from their parents around which there are clear rules and expectations. It’s a model similar to what more parents were doing in the early ’90s, when parents had more control over their kids’ access to phones: If you’re giving an early middle schooler a phone, it should be checked out like a library book. It is not something they keep with them all the time. It’s not a right to have a phone.

What’s important at this age is that parents are their kids’ digital neighbors. We tell parents that at least at first, they should tell their children that one condition of phone or internet access is that parents are able to see what they’re doing online. Parents are then able to watch when their seventh graders start an Instagram account, making sure the comments they are making on people’s Instagram posts are appropriate, and that the pictures they’re posting are of their friends, their family, or something they’re interested in—not a collection of selfies they take late at night. We want to know that kids aren’t falling into behaviors like cyberbullying, which they could be prone to in social situations online where there isn’t as much accountability. As kids get to the age when they want to be more independent, these are the kind of habits we’re building in. Strike a balance between setting boundaries around screens and having thoughtful discussions about online habits—and how they should reflect the values that we promote for face-to-face interactions with others.

“If you’re giving an early middle schooler a phone, it should be checked out like a library book.”

Television

When we talk about television, we tell parents that kids do not need to watch television with headphones on an iPad in their room; that’s the most antisocial way to enjoy a screen. Being alone in their rooms all the time can decrease social interaction as a family, and kids who spend a lot of time alone may be more prone to depression and anxiety. It’s still appropriate to say to kids in middle school that you’d like them to watch television in the living room or at the kitchen table, even if it’s on a laptop you’re giving them to use. As one example, using screens in shared spaces also means that kids are starting a habit where they’re playing a video game with their friends, but they’re not using the language they might use if they were alone. They’re likely to still be censoring themselves because they know parental ears are listening.

Video Games

Video games come down to a case-by-case basis. There’s research showing that kids who have difficulty regulating their emotions or aggression experience short-term effects following violent video games: A child may become more aggressive or angrier. It’s important that dysregulated behaviors are not practiced through video games that prize aggression or violence.

However, we want to make sure we’re not making parents feel guilty about allowing their kids to play video games that are in widespread use. The important thing is to take time to talk to kids about what’s going on in their video games, what themes are there, and the fact that they play a video game that involves inappropriate behavior (if they do). For kids, part of the privilege of being able to play those games is showing their parents that the behaviors in the game aren’t generalized outside of that game. In other words, if a kid is playing a video game that involves a lot of fighting between characters, what parents want to be sure of is that they are not seeing those behaviors mimicked in a school setting or in conflicts with siblings. And if that is happening, parents should be really limiting the kid’s exposure to these games.

High School

Negotiating

High school is tough for any parent because it’s the stage of development where kids are engaging in the most intense press for independence. Still, their prefrontal cortex, which governs prioritizing, impulses, and decision-making, may not be fully developed. Teens feel like they’ve got an adult capacity to make decisions, but if we consult research on the trajectory of brain development, they aren’t necessarily there yet. What we try to build into families are decision-making processes so that parents and teens can come to the table together to talk about what they would like to see around screen-related behaviors and agree on solutions that they can try out for short periods of time.

Teens might say they don’t want you to monitor their social media profiles. A parent might say, “Look, I want to trust you on your social media, so let’s try a model where we progressively release you to the wild. We’re going to start with me being able to monitor your social media for a while, and as long as I see you’re engaging appropriately, that you’re not engaging in cyberbullying or making inappropriate comments or posting something inappropriate, I’ll try to be less and less involved in monitoring what you’re doing.” Or if the kids say they really want to watch whatever they want on Netflix, parents might say, “Okay, sounds good. Netflix keeps a record of what you view. If you can show me just weekly what it is you’re watching, I’m happy to give you a large degree of independence.”

As part of the privilege of access to technology, we often will link high schoolers’ access to their social lives to their behavior on technology. So if a teen wants full independent access to their phone, that phone is just as much an instrument for engagement with social media as it is an instrument to tell their parents where they are on weekends. Their ability to have access to their friends on Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook is going to be heavily linked to whether or not, when they’re out with their friends on Saturday night, they’re keeping their parents posted on their ability to get home by curfew, calling a taxi if they need to, or texting parents whose house they’re at and who’s supervising.

Moderation

It’s not a good idea to try to make it so a teenager never has contact with screens. In the working world in the future, they are likely going to use a computer. These things aren’t going away.

We see a lot of media stories filled with worry about teens losing face-to-face interaction skills because of screens. And that’s definitely a concern if teens are spending too much time on screens to the detriment of all other real-life, real-world activity. Anytime a teen is spending all of their time on a certain activity and they’re also isolated from the world, that can be a risk for anxiety or depression. But teens who use screens in moderation tell us that their social worlds are richer because of screens. They have more ways to connect with their friends, to express how they’re feeling, more ways to find people who think like them and who share their interests. That can be a very positive effect of screens.

We also have many conversations surrounding sleep hygiene and screens. If teens cannot manage getting off of screens by bedtime, parents have to set some boundaries. We need to help teenagers develop responsible decision-making around screens, the same way we have conversations about responsible decision-making around parties and social events and things that may be a significant risk at that age, like drinking or marijuana.

“Teens who use screens in moderation tell us that their social worlds are richer because of screens. They have more ways to connect with their friends, to express how they’re feeling, more ways to find people who think like them and who share their interests.”

Q

Negotiating screen time with teenagers is usually easier said than done. What helps?

A

For help creating contracts with kids, we often send people to one of our community partners, Common Sense Media; their site has all kinds of drafts of technology contracts that parents can utilize. Here’s what the process for us often involves:

What are parents’ nonnegotiables? This is like going into a diplomatic summit. You want to know where you’re drawing the line. There are going to be certain things you are not willing to negotiate. If your teens say they want a messaging app that disguises their identity and who they are, and they don’t want you ever to check on them…those may not be things you’re willing to agree to. You might decide your nonnegotiables are that the phone is in a charging cradle outside their room by 10:30 p.m., they’re not allowed to be on any anonymous texting or social media websites, and they can’t go on dating websites until they’re eighteen. So that’s what you’re going in with; you want them to know what your nonnegotiables are and what would cause the entire contract to go up in smoke.

At the same time, open communication and negotiation are important. With those nonnegotiables, you bring into the discussion what your teens say they would like. Keep teens at the bargaining table by showing that there’s open communication and that you can be reasonable (as long as they are). This can help scaffold their independent decision-making while still retaining the privilege of setting boundaries when they’re needed.

Q

Do you find media headlines about kids’ online behavior to be exaggerated? What should we actually be concerned about?

A

Media stories are sometimes the most sensational examples of a certain phenomenon. But the reality is that yes, there are concerns and things we want parents to be on the lookout for. While most kids on social media may say they’ve had a positive experience connecting with their friends, cyberbullying is very real and just as harmful as real-world bullying. And it can often be suffered in secret. With real-world bullying, there’s often at least a chance of bystanders, but cyberbullying can happen secretly via text message or private messaging on social media websites. Parents may not know until it’s really too late. This why we want to build some safety parameters into teenagers’ internet use.

Q

How do adverse effects of screens manifest? Is it causal? Does screen time change the brain?

A

We shy away from saying we know exactly what’s going on in the brain or that this is causal—often because we don’t entirely know. There is so much pseudoscience out there mentioning the development of kids’ brains. We want to be very sure of the evidence if we are going to mention anything about developmental effects.

Some research in the ADHD realm suggests that kids who are prone to ADHD and who watch screens at early ages might have more severe ADHD symptoms later in development. They may be less likely to focus on the tasks required of them in early school years or on forming relationships with other kids. For other issues like anxiety or depression, it often seems like a chicken or egg question. For some kids, their time spent on screens may be playing a causal role in mental health disorders like anxiety or depression, or it may be that those screens are exacerbating symptoms that were already present, providing another medium of expression.

Q

What are some positive things happening online for kids right now?

A

Certain websites are taking steps around mental health and risk reduction. Some well-publicized examples include: Facebook is trying to figure out how to have more resources available if a teenager or college student finds that one of their friends is posting things that might be indicative of depression or that suggest that someone is at risk of hurting themselves. For shows like 13 Reasons Why that focus on very sensitive mental health topics, it’s clearly a good thing to make sure viewers see messages saying if you need help or if you’re experiencing depressive symptoms, here’s where you can go. Because teens are consuming this content, we want to find more avenues for accessing help for those who might be at risk.

David Anderson, Ph.D., is the senior director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. He specializes in evaluating and treating children and adolescents with ADHD, behavior disorders, and anxiety and mood disorders. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from Columbia University.

The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies. They are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop. This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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