Young girl smiling and using her laptop Our children and teens spend an extraordinary amount of time on digital devices. How much? According to a 2019 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, children aged 8-12 spent an average of 4.5 hours a day on screens, while teens aged 13-18 spent 6.5 hours a day.

The pandemic – and its resulting closures of schools, sports and most extracurricular activities – has only heightened our reliance on digital tools, leading many parents to ask: How much screen time is too much? And, is all screen time created equal?

Eric Li, MD, a Physician Fellow in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, is researching these issues and offers his insight to parents looking for guidance during these challenging times.

Quality vs. quantity

“Not all screen time is created equal,” Dr. Li says. “For many children, screens are their window into today’s socially-distanced world – a place to talk with friends and family, to collaborate on projects, and to pursue personal interests and hobbies.”

Most students are required to view digital content every day for school -- on their tablets, smartphones or computers. Digital screens are part of our lives, and when used appropriately, they can enhance student learning. They can be used as teaching tools, to reach students where they are both physically and educationally, to review material and to test what students have learned.

“Distinctions in digital usage must be made between school work, TV, video games, social media and other uses,” Dr. Li says. “We should encourage children and teens to use screens in active pursuits and limit time spent on passive ones. Not all screen use is bad – especially now when in-person interactions are limited due to COVID-19.”

Screen time pros & cons

Some types of screen time can be helpful in building camaraderie among groups of students and help others avoid social isolation. Today, more teens are playing in multiplayer online and video games, chatting in group texts, or posting on social media. For many, this type of socialization is equivalent to attending the big game, a party or just hanging out with friends in pre-COVID times.

Screen time can also allow teens to safely and privately explore some of their interests online, to seek information about sensitive topics (like sexuality) they may not feel comfortable sharing with others yet, and to find online support if needed.

While using digital devices to explore the world can have many positive benefits, there are also parts of the internet that harbor material inappropriate for children and bad people looking to exploit our children’s naivety and innocence.

By being aware of how your child is using their screen time, parents can warn their children about or avoid some negative effects of screens. Encourage your child to talk to you or a trusted adult if they:

  • Witness or experience bullying, harassment and/or unsolicited sexual content
  • Feel a loss of privacy or see/hear people sharing their personal information online
  • Experience increased envy of others or FOMO (fear of missing out)
  • View support for harmful activities like pro-anorexia groups or pro-suicide pages

Balance is the key

When trying to determine if your child has too much screen time, experts say balance is the key. The top two reasons teens say they go online is because they are bored (#1), and to socialize (#2). (If you’re curious, the top reason adults say they go online is to get the news.)

Some strategies to help your child or teen bring balance back to their life and screen usage includes:

  • Avoid multitasking. Trying to both watch TV and do homework only makes homework go on longer. Our brains – especially our children’s brains – cannot fully concentrate on one task, if trying to do two.
  • Don’t disrupt sleep, exercise, meals or family time with screens. Do one thing at a time and try to stay fully present for each task.
  • Educate children on FOMO and help them understand that what they see on their screens is not always reality, that advertisements are meant to sell products, not create happiness. And that kids don’t always get what they want.
  • Brainstorm new ways to occupy time between classes, after-school activities and family time – other than on their screens. Be warned, your kids may expect you to take your own advice. Nearly 40 percent of children say their parents are on their phone or digital device too much, so have some ideas to help you be more present during your time together. Consider a family promise to each other.
  • Find small ways to change habits. Does your child have five minutes before class? Encourage them to get a jump on homework, study for an upcoming test, or read for pleasure.

When to seek help

If your child’s screen time regularly disrupts normal activities or family time, if they don’t enjoy things they used to, or if they have excessive tantrums or conflict over screen time or limits, talk to your child’s pediatrician immediately. Device and screen addiction is real and can have long-term consequences. Your child’s pediatrician can help refer you to a mental health professional skilled in working with children or teens with screen additions.

Contributed by Eric Li, MD, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellow at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Reviewed by Aateqa Ismail, MD, Attending Psychiatrist at CHOP.

Resources

  1. American Academy of Pediatrics Family Media Plan
  2. Common Sense Media

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