From toddlers to teens, our kids and grandkids today are more plugged in than ever. Research by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group that focuses on how children interact with media and technology, found that children ages 8 and younger spend an average of 48 minutes a day staring at a mobile screen. And more than 42 percent of kids ages 8 and younger now have their own tablets.
By the time they’ve reached their teens, the vast majority (nearly 80 percent) of our kids and grandkids have access to a smartphone — and you won’t find them far from their devices most of the time. Common Sense Media reports half of all teens feel addicted to their mobile devices, with 78 percent checking them at least hourly. For most, social media services like Instagram and Snapchat drive the need to constantly check in. Common Sense reports that 80 percent of teens and 23 percent of tweens have their own social media accounts. As adults, most of us are also guilty of being tied to our devices. But researchers say that for kids, the consequences of being constantly online can be far more damaging.
The Long Term Effects
Kids are increasingly likely to communicate via social media, even when they are face-to-face with each other. “The prefrontal cortex of the brain is not complete until most people are in their mid to late 20s,” explains Larry Rosen, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the psychology department at California State University, Dominguez Hills and author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. This area of the brain plays a significant role in willpower, decision making, and the ability to think things through, says Rosen. Constantly scrolling through an Instagram feed or swiping through games may undermine the development of this crucial area of cognition. Other research has shown that the brains of young people diagnosed with internet addiction show significantly less gray matter, which is associated with planning, decision making, and impulse control.
The Mental Health Problem
There are also other troubling signs when it comes to mental health. Some experts suspect that skyrocketing diagnoses of ADHD (up 43 percent between 2000 and 2010) may have everything to do with the amount of time kids spend in front of screens. “More kids today than ever before are struggling, and on some level these digital distractions may be to blame,” says Thomas Kersting, a licensed psychotherapist and the author of Disconnected: How to Reconnect Our Digitally Distracted Kids.
“Many kids today exhibit antisocial behaviors like struggling to make eye contact in conversation and difficulty forming friendships, along with poor coping skills.” Some of this also occurs on a molecular level: There’s a natural occurrence in adolescence called neural pruning, he says. “It’s the brain’s way of weeding out pathways that are used less often.” If kids spend most of their time communicating through their devices and not face-to-face, the brain may weed out the neural pathways that are vital to becoming an in-person communicator, notes Kersting.
Other mental health experts fear that social media and other technology may be contributing to higher rates of adolescent depression and suicide risk. The number of adolescents who experienced at least one major depressive episode was up 60 percent between 2010 and 2016, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. And research shows 48 percent of teens who spend more than five hours a day on electronic devices report at least one suicide-related outcome (defined as: feeling very lonely and considering, planning, or attempting suicide). Young women seem to be at the biggest risk — a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that suicide rates among teen girls is at a 40-year high.
The Physical Health Problem
Technology can also affect kids in other ways. A 2014 study of 2-year-olds found that BMI increases for every hour per week of media consumption. And kids who watch more than two hours of TV daily have twice the risk of developing childhood obesity. A recent German study found that higher use of electronic media is linked to lower sleep quality in kids as young as age 3.
Of course, not all technology use is negative. Most of us find some relief in being able to constantly check in with our kids and grandkids, whether it’s figuring out how they’re getting home from practice or reminding them of a doctor’s appointment. And more than 40 percent of parents say media actually helps their children’s relationships. Still, given the many concerns we all have about our kids’ use of technology, it helps to have an action plan in place. Not sure where to begin? Follow our expert tips for helping keep technology in your house under control.
“As soon as your child is using devices, you need to start talking about rules and what’s right and wrong,” says Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Explain that tablets, phones, and computers are not toys and they should handle them with care. And talk about the importance of respecting privacy and protecting personal information in age-appropriate ways. “Our goal as parents is to be proactive, which means thinking and talking about issues before they become a problem,” adds Beurkens. Keep the conversation going, adding more information as your children get older.
“Kids need to know what information is safe to disclose,” says Beurkens. That’s especially true for younger children, who don’t always set appropriate boundaries. “Explain what is appropriate to share and why there could be safety concerns.” For older kids, emphasize the importance of creating boundaries and not oversharing, posting inappropriate content, or being disrespectful in digital interactions. “Teach them that what they put out can’t be taken back. Kids are growing up in a culture where boundaries are fluid, and they often don’t understand the consequences of their actions,” adds Beurkens.
“Parents have to monitor their children’s use of technology — period,” says Rosen. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends zero screen-based media (except for video chatting) for children under 18 months. For toddlers (18–24 months), the group advises that parents should choose only “high-quality programming” and watch it alongside their child. The group advises children ages 2 to 5 have no more than one hour of high-quality programming a day, while those ages 6 and up have consistent limits on time spent using media. Rosen recommends kids under age 10 use technology for no more than 30–60 minutes a day; preteens (ages 10 to 12) should be limited to about 60–90 minutes at a sitting; teens and adults, no more than 90 minutes at any one time before taking at least a 15-to-30-minute break.
Ensure a No-Phone Zone
We all need time away from our devices, says Rosen, who adds both adults and kids should have at least 1–2 hours a day with zero access to any devices. Create tech-free zones, like the dinner table and your child’s or grandchild’s room, and use your time together to catch up. Just sitting down and having a talk with them every day, even for just 15 minutes, can strengthen your relationship and assist in developing communication skills. “Talk about anything — sports, school, the weather — as long as you have face-to-face interaction,” says Rosen.
Keep Tech Out of the Bedroom
The AAP reports that using digital media at night can interfere with sleep quality. Put screens away at least 30 minutes before bedtime and keep them out of the bedroom, especially after lights out. Devices that emit blue light tend to hamper the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that controls the sleep-wake cycle, which can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, about 72 percent of children ages 6 to 17 sleep with at least one electronic device in the bedroom — which can lead to getting up to an hour’s less sleep on school nights, compared with other kids.
Be a Good Role Model
Face it: You’re probably on your device a lot more than you would like. In fact, according to Common Sense Media, parents spend more than nine hours a day on a screen. But 78 percent of all parents believe they are good technology role models for their children. The best way to model good behavior? Know when it’s time to turn off your device. Whenever possible, leave your phone out of eyesight and focus on interacting with your child or grandchild.
Let Your Child Get Bored
When you always have the world at your fingertips, there’s no need for anyone to get bored. But that’s not always a good thing, especially for kids. “Boredom is the Miracle-Gro for the mind and for your emotional well-being,” says Kersting. “It’s a form of mindfulness that we can all use to reflect and build creativity.” When you’re constantly distracted by devices, your mind can’t just roam free. “We have to teach our kids to embrace boredom, not avoid it,” he adds.
Check In on What They’re Doing
A respect for privacy may be important, but parents and grandparents still need to be aware of their kids’ online activities, says Beurkens. About 40 percent of parents say they check the content of their children’s devices and social media accounts always or most of the time. But while you can choose to incorporate parental controls, some experts say you are the best gatekeeper. Kids tend to get around parental controls anyway, and older kids tend to feel like their parents don’t trust them. Continue to have up-front and honest conversations with your kids about healthy media use and remind them to think about what they are posting.
Use Your Tech Together
Use some of your own screen time to get familiar with your kids’ and grandkids’ favorite games or service. Ask them to show you a favorite new game or check out the latest YouTube sensation. See what they’re tuning into and show them some of your favorite (age-appropriate) stuff as well. It doesn’t really matter if it’s an educational video or a silly meme; it can just bring you closer.
Remember: It’s Never Too Late To Get Involved
“I often see parents who haven’t been proactive in the past, and now they don’t know how to backtrack,” says Beurkens. “It’s OK to say to your kids, ‘I should have looked into this more — and now we need to put some boundaries into place.’”
Fight Tech Addiction
There are a few easy ways to make it easier to put the phone down — for a little while, at least.
- Turn off notifications: Every time your teen gets a ding that her latest post has been liked, it sends her straight to the app to start scrolling. Make it easier to ignore by turning off habit- forming push notifications.
- Get rid of autoplay: Services like Netflix, Facebook, and YouTube keep an endless stream of videos on tap — so it’s a lot harder to shut down. Reduce binge use by shutting off the default autoplay setting.
- Break up streaks: Apps like Snapchat encourage users to send posts for as many days as possible. If your child’s streaks are turning into an obsession, limit use to once a day.
- Get rid of in-app purchases: Some popular games try to convince you to stay in the game by buying currency; they’re also more likely to hit you up with other ads. Avoid the hassle by springing for the full, paid version.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, The Science of Raising Happy Kids, in 2018.
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