Good Housekeeping (USA)
STRAIGHT TALK ABOUT SCREEN TIME
If you feel that your family was wearing out their eyes staring at devices before the pandemic, you have to wonder what schooling, working and socializing remotely means for our physical, emotional and eye health. Fortunately, things are not as dire as they may seem. Here’s the latest on how to balance your family’s digital diet.
IN THE BEFORE TIMES (i.e., prior to the start of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders last March), kids and grown-ups alike already treated our devices almost as extensions of our brains. According to a 2018 Nielsen Company audience report, between smartphones, computers, video games, tablets, radios and TV, the average U.S. adult spent about 101/2 hours on screens each day. By February 2020, children between ages
8 and 12 spent an average of four to six hours using screens (presumably when they weren’t in school), and teens spent up to nine hours, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reports. What’s happening now we can only guess, as data on pandemic-era screen use is still scarce, but most of us have noticed increased connectivity. Maybe your device has alerted you to how many more hours you scrolled, Zoomed or streamed this week than last week.
Much of this, of course, is due to the fact that we can’t gather together as safely as before — and our phones and computers enable us to function and perhaps earn a living, which is good. There’s not much we can do about the amount of time we have to spend plugged in right now to keep life moving forward. But experts say there are many ways to make sure our screens are enhancing our minds rather than turning us into giant piles of dead brain cells with aching necks and social-media-perfectlife influencer envy. “It’s a quality game, not a quantity game,” says Megan Moreno, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of adolescent medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of the authors of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) screen-use guidelines. “There are tools and resources for families to customize the types of media that work for their families as well as for individual members,” says Dr. Moreno. “Things like high-quality programs and games that help with not only knowledge, but also problem-solving, turn-taking and competing in friendly ways.”
Below, expert tips on how to steer your family (and yourself!) toward mind-expanding media, ways to use it healthily and how to know when it’s time to power down altogether.
THINK BEYOND ALL-OR-NOTHING
While the AAP used to entirely discourage screen use for young children, the organization’s most recent guidelines no longer suggest a time limit on media use for children over 5, because screens can be used in many legitimately beneficial ways. The only age group that doesn’t get anything out of screen use at all: children whose cognitive processing skills aren’t yet ready for it. “Kids 18 months and under have the least to gain from watching videos,” explains Jenny Radesky, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School and an author of the AAP guidelines. That doesn’t mean a toddler will be harmed by a few episodes of Sesame Street while you clean the house or get dinner ready, but neither will it turn them into a baby Einstein. A bigger issue is that younger children exposed to hours and hours of TV may not get the face-to-face social interaction they need to develop, which is why it’s smart to keep screens to a minimum for them. For children over 5, the AAP recommends a “family media use plan” that emphasizes mindful interaction with the digital world, including balancing the use of programs and games that have a thoughtprovoking or educational element with time doing activities that don’t involve using devices.
BE SCREEN SMART: It’s a relief when the kids are nice and quiet, but try not to forget about them — keep an eye out for signs that they need to switch up what they’re doing. If your kid doesn’t respond when you talk to them; your teen is neglecting chores or homework; or they won’t give up the devices without a fight, it’s time to limit screen use to school-related activities until some perspective is restored.
TAKE TEMPERAMENT INTO ACCOUNT
Just as all children’s content is not created equal, kids don’t all react the same way to different types of screen activities. Some get too revved up by apps or games that deliver rewards for continued engagement or have a hard time unplugging from platforms that autoplay episode after episode. Other children’s eyes may glaze over while they’re on their devices, scrolling and scrolling, and they may seem sluggish or disengaged even after they stop. In fact, too much staring at screens, while it shouldn’t harm your child’s vision, can lead to eye fatigue, strain, dry eyes and headaches.
Dr. Radesky uses a traffic-light model to explain how different kids react: Kids in the green zone are calm and responsive while using their devices and afterward. In the yellow zone, they’re hyper and overexcited and can be hard to distract.
In the red zone, they’re totally checked out, and pulling the plug buys you a one-way ticket to Tantrum Town. Older kids may get sullen or combative or lose track of real-world tasks in favor of finishing “just one more level.”
BE SCREEN SMART: Which zone is your kid in? Once you’ve figured that out, redirect a red or yellow zone kid to more “nutritious” programming. Games that are focused on creativity and puzzles, as opposed to ones that offer incentives for continued use, are good options; calmer, less flashy TV shows such as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Arthur or PBS Kids programs are better than unboxing videos or action cartoons with lots of fighting and snarkiness. Common Sense Media (commonsense media.org), which offers age-based reviews of TV shows, movies, books, apps and games, can help you choose. If a kid gets stuck in the red zone, try setting strict time limits for their favorite media (or even taking it away for a week or two) and see if the
behavior changes, Dr. Radesky suggests. Some kids (and adults!) haven’t developed the impulse control to be able to step away from reward-based media or the numbing, soothing activity of going down Internet rabbit holes. And give their eyes a break by prodding them to get up and focus on something in the distance for a bit, just as adults should do when working at a computer all day, to give the zombie stare a rest.
ENCOURAGE SCREENFREE SOOTHING
Scrolling for long periods can help us all chill out, but kids who are still learning emotional regulation shouldn’t rely solely on their devices for relaxation.
BE SCREEN SMART: As tempting as it may be to give your child the iPad when they are upset or need to wind down, hold off for a few minutes. Ask them to name their feelings, then talk about why they’re having them and figure out more appropriate responses together, says Dr. Radesky. This goes for adults too. “Technology is often serving in the role of an emotional comfort object,” says Anya Kamenetz, a parenting expert and the author of The Art of Screen Time. “Instead, sit with the feeling, notice how it feels in your body and take the opportunity to learn how to get more grounded instead of immediately distracting yourself from your feelings.”
GO AHEAD, PLAY GAMES
Even the least educational video games, such as those involving first-person shooting like Fortnite, can benefit kids’ social and cognitive development. “Most games kids like to play are with or against others, so they’re inherently social,” says Jan Plass, founding director of the Consortium for Research and Evaluation of Advanced Technology in Education (CREATE). “They’re learning strategic communication skills, creativity, cooperation. So it’s not by default a waste of time.”
BE SCREEN SMART: The bottom line is, if it’s a choice between a favorite video game and mindless cartoons, opt for the controller. But if screen time starts interfering with the rest of kids’ lives, it’s time to set some boundaries. Plass limits his own sons’ gaming to a couple of hours a day, assuming they maintain their grades. His family balances screen time with group hikes, sports practice and other offline activities to emphasize the importance of engaging with the offline world.
TEACH SOCIAL MEDIA SKILLS
These days, online communities are one of the main ways kids can see their friends, so it’s important to let them join in.
Still, social media can turn toxic because it’s an unsupervised space, free of parental presence and other signifiers of accountability, and it’s easy for things to get out of hand. “When you make a joke in person, you can see on someone’s face how they’re taking it,” Kamenetz says.
“We don’t have that information when we’re just chatting with our friends online.” Social media can also increase depression and anxiety in teens who are predisposed to these conditions.
BE SCREEN SMART: Walk your kids through how to recognize when the vibe of the group has strayed toward bullying or when someone in it seems as if they’re not sharing in the fun. Check in with kids and teens about how their online spaces feel, suggests Kamenetz. Are they positive places that leave them entertained and supported, or do they come away drained, jealous or sad? She reminds her children that they can always opt out by muting a thread or leaving a conversation, and that they should cultivate kindness in their online communities. And if you notice your teen starting to withdraw from you more than usual, let them know you’re there to talk things through with them if they need you to.
BUILD IN BOUNDARIES AND TRANSITIONS
Leaving some time between games and videos and, say, family dinner or bedtime can help prevent meltdowns or frustration when you suggest putting down the phone. Screens are very stimulating, Kamenetz says, so time is needed for that energy to dissipate before turning to another activity or winding down for sleep.
BE SCREEN SMART: Kamenetz sets a timer that tells her kids when it’s time to put down their devices, then builds in five more minutes for the family to decompress. Dr. Moreno’s family members know when they should put their phones away (such as at the dinner table or when playing a board game) and hold one another accountable. Plass brings his kids’ digital lives into their real ones by talking at the dinner table about their favorite onscreen games, which often leads to conversations about issues in their lives that they otherwise might not discuss.