There was a time when parents were concerned their children were watching too much television. Today, with iPads, iPhones, computers and video games in little hands, parents have even more screens to worry about.
Now, we must ask the questions: How much screen time is too much? And what are the consequences?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average child in 2016 spent seven hours a day interacting with screen media. That year, the AAP came out with recommendations, updated from 2011, that ranged from no screen time, with the exception of video chats, to “it depends.” According to the Association, excessive media use has been linked to obesity, sleep problems, troubles in school, aggression and other behavioral issues.
Amy Schafer, a licensed professional counselor at Compass Counseling & Wellness in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, agrees that too much screen time is detrimental and instead should be viewed as a reward, such as after homework is completed.
“One result of too much screen time (in younger children) is a lower ability to socialize,” Schafer says. “There’s more parallel play, where kids play next to each other, and less interactive play.”
Schafer emphasizes the key to screen time is intentionality. “You can have family movie time,” she says. “Or a father and son can be interested in playing a video game together.”
Experts say it’s okay to use television or another device as a short-term babysitter while parents take a quick shower or start a load of laundry. But this should be limited. Using the media along with your child is better, especially if they’re very young.
While it might be easier to redirect younger children away from a screen with a book or other interactive activity, older children and teens are less likely to fall for that parental ruse.
In “Pittsburgh Parent,” Neil D. Brown, LCSW, says parents need to model the behavior they want their kids to follow. If the situation has reached the point of a struggle of wills, Brown suggests making it clear that screen time is a privilege, not an entitlement, much like being able to drive. To help defuse the situation and model taking responsibility, parents should apologize to their kids for fighting with them.
“It moves the pattern out of the realm of blame and defensiveness and informs kids that parents cannot and will not try to control them,” Brown says. “Parents will only establish rules and privileges. Behavioral control is the responsibility of the kids.”
If parents have concerns about the type of media their children are consuming, Schafer recommends Common Sense Media, a review site from parents and experts on games, apps, movies and other media. Families with Apple devices can use Screen Time, a new feature of iOS 12 that lets parents know how much time they and their kids spend on apps, websites and more.
Perhaps the best advice Schafer has is this: “Never forget to unplug and go outside. It’s all about balance.”