Why Summertime Shouldn't Mean More Screen Time

Staring down at your phone for the greater part of the day can't be good for anyone. Yet short of prying those devices from the hands of our kids (hard to do when most of us have our own phone in the other hand), there's got to be a way to help them live a more balanced life.
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Summer is here and that means kids won't have those pesky teachers telling them to put their phones away. Let the summer of the smartphone begin!

Most parents (admit it) have relinquished their right to just say no to "too much screen time," otherwise how can we explain that, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) "the average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with different media, and older children and teens spend more than 11 hours per day"? That's time that used to be spent enjoying the great outdoors, having face-to-face conversation with friends or, heaven forbid, hanging out with siblings and parents. With digital devices largely supplanting these activities, those days are long gone.

Yet last fall, the AAP released a startling new policy statement in the journal Pediatrics recommending that children should be limited to less than two hours of entertainment-based screen time per day, and shouldn't have TVs or Internet access in their bedrooms.

When parents hear about this, most (myself included) throw up their hands in complete and utter resignation because turning the tide of excessive media consumption at this point just feels so darn hard. After all, how can real life possibly compete with Instagram and Snapchat?

But the data couldn't be clearer. According to an article in the Washington Post, Dr. Victor Strasburger, the policy statement's lead author and a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico, says that the AAP's two-hour cutoff is based on several large studies that have followed the television-watching habits and health of children over decades. What the AAP discovered was that excessive media use can lead to a host of ill effects, including attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders and obesity.

In addition to the AAP's findings, there are other growing concerns about excessive media use including the impact of digital media on social interactions. Experts like Michael Friedlander, head of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine and a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, report "that when the bulk of a young person's interactions with others is done electronically at the expense of face-to-face communication, social development may be affected." Friedlander says,

So much of what we're conveying to each other comes from the intonation of our voice, the looks, the facial expression, the body language, the pauses-all those subtle cues that go into communication. Kids who are spending all of their time interacting through this cyber world are very likely to not have the opportunity to develop sets of skills that are innate and important to the human brain in terms of what we call social cognition.

You don't have to be a brain researcher to know that staring down at your phone for the greater part of the day can't be good for anyone. Yet short of prying those devices from the hands of our kids (hard to do when most of us have our own phone in the other hand), there's got to be a way to help them live a more balanced life.

The solution is actually in the AAP report. Their policy, although grim, refers specifically to "entertainment-based screen time." In other words, it's important to remember that not all media is created equally. Interestingly, another large study finds significant differences between TV-watching and game-playing: while more than three hours per day of television was linked to worse conduct, the same stretch of video gaming was not.

That's why Digital Life Expert David Ryan Polgar advocates for what he calls a "healthy media diet." According to Polgar,

Parents can instill a healthy media diet for their children by not only considering the quantity of time spent in front of screens, but also the quality of content that is being delivered. The content can be either educational, entertainment or edutainment. By being aware of what the child is using the device for, along with that total amount of time used, parents can structure a media diet that is high in quality and healthy in quantity. Instead of having a feast or famine lifestyle filled with long stretches of continuous use and then forced digital detoxes, it can be replaced with "mindful consumption."

Although it's difficult to enforce tech restrictions, especially for older kids who already have well-established viewing habits, we can help them make good choices. Both the AAP and Polgar offer helpful tips. According to the AAP, parents should:

  • Model effective "media diets" to help their children learn to be selective and healthy in what they consume.

  • Take an active role in children's media education by co-viewing with them (don't forget this includes social media!) and discussing values.
  • Make a media use plan, including non-use of media during mealtime and bedtime curfews.
  • Keep screens (this includes mobile devices) out of kids' bedrooms; have a family policy to use them in common living spaces (i.e. family room or home office).
  • Polgar suggests,

    • Keep a tech diary: We know that children are spending hours each day in front of a screen, but how exactly are they spending it? After going over the results of a daily tech diary, come up with a goal/reward system.

  • Play IRL ("In Real Life"): Look for the games that your children are playing online and find ways to play them in real life.
  • Use an egg timer: Pick an amount of time that your child(ren) will be online. Set the timer and go. Children will gain a sense of time spent online while making it into a fun game.
  • Here's the bottom line: don't think of this as a battle, but rather as a compromise that will require ongoing conversation, negotiation and concession (from both sides). We all have a lot to learn about managing time spent on digital devices. Let's figure out how to do it together.

    Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly spelled David Polgar's last name.

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