Summertime can be a joy for kids and a challenge for parents. All that free time is liberating but can come with a cost – conflicts sparked by the amount of time kids spend on screens, including smartphones, tablets, TVs, and computers.
“The summertime offers lots of activities that are vying for our attention,” said Dr. John P. Shand, a WellSpan psychiatrist and director of the psychiatry department at WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital. “In the midst of this, our screens are constantly vying for our attention. All of us, young and old, are prime targets for losing precious time to devices.”
In fact, children are particularly at risk for spending too much time on screens. Kids from ages 8 to 12 spend four to six hours a day watching or using screens, on average, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Teens can spend up to nine hours. Even toddlers are not immune from the lure of the screen.
There actually is a scientific reason kids want to spend so much time in front of screens. Think of screens as sugar for the brain, because they have a similar effect on kids’ developing brains, flooding them with dopamine, a feel-good chemical that is released when people see something they like online, Shand says. The result of too much “sugar” for the brain? An overstimulated kid who seems both agitated and exhausted.
Science also shows us that too much screen time comes at the expense of other parts of a child’s brain. A National Institutes of Health study showed that kids who spend more than two hours a day on screens scored lower on language and thinking tests. Kids who spent more than seven hours a day on screens showed a thinning of the brain's cortex, which manages critical thinking and reasoning.
As parents and consumers of technology ourselves, what can we do to ensure our children adopt healthy screen time habits?
The first thing to do is be very aware of your own screen time. Children copy what they see. If they see a parent or guardian glued to their phone in their spare time, they are apt to mimic that behavior.
Teach your children by using your screens for a particular purpose and not just for aimless surfing that can suck up hours of time, Shand says.
“If we can be intentional with our time on our screens, it means that we are being intentional about the time away from them,” he says. “This is the balance to seek – a healthy mix of work, social, leisure, and digital activities.”
Here are some guidelines from Shand:
- Ignore your phone, or delay answering it, when you are with your kids or family or friends. This should be particularly true with your children. Wait until a conversation is ended before you check your phone. Ask your kids to do the same.
- Limit social media consumption to 30 to 60 minutes per day for better mental health.
- Keep in mind that online relationships and social media have become a major part of life for teens. The critically important thing during the teen years is to make sure your child understands what behavior is inappropriate, such as sexting, cyberbullying, and sharing personal information online.
- Stop using screens at least an hour before bedtime for better sleep.
- Make bedrooms at night a no-screen zone. Charge your devices overnight in a family area and teach your child to do the same.
- Get together to draw up a family media plan, with guidelines for everyone. This could include guidelines such as making mealtimes and outings a no-phone zone. Make sure you adhere to the plan too.