Everyday parents are confronted with how to orchestrate their children’s interaction with media, and it’s often far from easy. Whether it’s tugging an iPad away from a tantruming toddler, pulling a middle schooler out of a Mindcraft binge or constantly bickering with a teen about no texting at the dinner table, the arguments spun over media can frustrate even the most patient parent.
The bottom line these days is that we live in an increasingly technology driven society, and almost everyone is negatively impacted by media overuse in some way. And, while the constant availability to information, entertainment and virtual connection through social media sites can come with benefits, if left unchecked, it can—and is—creating significant problems for the developmental health of children, families and the overall well-being of American society.
There is now evidence that electronics activate the pleasure circuits in the brain, much the same way that alcohol or sex does. As with both alcohol and sex, the amount of dopamine doubles when engaging in some forms of digital media like Facebook or Instagram.
Some scientists believe that active media use shrinks the grey matter in the brain and compromises the frontal cortex, the decision-making and impulse center of the brain, in much the same way that cocaine does. And, a developing brain that is constantly stimulated loses its innate sense of curiosity, causing children to experience and express apathy or boredom when they unplug.
Some experts have gone so far as to dub media overuse as electronic cocaine or digital heroin. Essentially, we’re seeing that too much screen time can have dire consequences, which is especially problematic given how much time our nation’s kids are spending plugged in.
A 2013 Policy Statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that 8 to 10-year-olds spend roughly eight hours a day engaged in some form of media and teens are spending an average of 11 hour a day in front of a screen. Furthermore, the study said that one in three children is using a smart phone or tablet before they can talk.
Limiting Screen Time
As a child psychologist, I often have parents ask me what exactly constitutes “screen time,” and how much is appropriate for children of varying ages. Screen time is the use of any electronic device, be it a smart phone, laptop, iPad, tablet or video console, which requires active engagement, such as texting, gaming or surfing the Net. I see television as less of an issue in that it’s often used passively, and family movie nights can be a great way to increase closeness and keep kids off the iPads. When it comes to what is appropriate use of screen time for children of different ages and developmental stages, implementing and sticking to some hard and fast rules can be helpful in supporting your child’s healthy development and avoiding a slew of headaches down the line.
The following five tips can help you and your family get on the right track when it comes to media.
Set Age Guidelines.
While a lot of parents hand over their smart phone to pacify a cranky or overly curious toddler, I strongly recommend zero screen time for children under the age of five. I’ve heard many parents argue that digital educational games are helpful—or even necessary—in our technology-rich age, yet I strongly disagree. There are countless non-media activities that young children can engage in, such as Legos or art projects, that stimulate many parts of the brain and support healthy cognitive and motor skills development. Plus, we grew up with games like building blocks and Chutes and Ladders, as well as a lot of unstructured free play. We’re still able to function successfully in today’s plugged-in world, and may be better off for it.
For children 6 to 13, I recommend no screen time during the school week and no more than two hours total on weekends. I also recommend not buying a child a cell phone until the age of fourteen or freshman year of high school. Some parents say their middle school child needs a phone for safety reasons or to fit in with other kids. I think it’s important to build trust and extend independence during these years. So cut the cord. If you absolutely must know where your child is at all times, then consider buying a smart watch with GPS that allows the child to receive and send texts or make limited phone calls in case of emergency.
Another reason to hold off on the phone during middle school is that impulsivity is at an all time high during these years. So why put your middleschooler at risk for inappropriate use of a cell phone? For these reasons, I suggest waiting until high school to get the phone.
For teens, I also recommend no computer games, video games or iPad gaming during the week, as well as continuing to limit that kind of use to just two hours on the weekend. But, taking a phone away from a teen is nearly impossible. As long as your teen is using his or her phone responsibly, I think it’s fine for teens to have their phones during the week. But, limit teen phone use to one hour an evening, with the phone shut off by a certain time every night.
Many parents complain that all the school assignments are on the computer and Facebook is one click away for their child, offering hours of distraction from homework. That is why for all children and teens, I suggest regulating technology—with technology. You can use software to monitor or block websites. For the phone, I suggest an app called Web Curfew to shut off the phone at a certain time. This prevents your teen from being up all night surfing youtube or texting their friends.
Out of the Bedroom.
As mentioned, I recommend no screen time during the week and no more than two hours total on the weekend. I also strongly suggest that gaming devises, tablets, and cell phones are kept out of the bedroom. The problem with cell phones is that many kids believe that they should have his or her phone on them all the time. By designating a place where the cell phone goes once everyone is home for the evening, kids can start creating healthy phone habits early. Set up a charging station in the kitchen and ask your teen to charge their phone there each night--ensuring a good night’s sleep for you and your teen.
Communicate Expectations Clearly.
Whether you adopt my tips or find others that work well for your family, clearly communicate to your kids what the rules around media use are and why they’re important. Until trust has been broken, empower older children to self-regulate their media use and demonstrate that they can be responsible. And, get clear with them on what the consequences of misuse or overuse will be. It might be that they are grounded from using their phone or that you simply stop paying their phone bill for a month or two. Sometimes having to go without their primary form of media communication is the most effective form of communication. Also, remind your kids that technology is a privilege, not a right, and should be used responsibly or not at all.
Lead by Example.
Let’s face it, we’ve all been guilty of checking our email, a newsfeed or a sports score or mindlessly scrolling through Facebook when our attention could and probably should be elsewhere. And, if you think that your kids aren’t picking up on how much you’re using your smart phone, guess again. The best way to instill healthy technology habits in your children is to model them.
Dr. George Sachs is the founder and director of the Sachs Center in Manhattan, specializing in the testing and treatment of ADHD in adults, teens and children. Dr. Sachs offers a holistic approach to ADHD treatment, which includes neurofeedback, therapy, ADD therapy and coaching. He is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post and other media outlets.