By Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D. and Tristan Gorrindo, M.D.
As clinicians who work with families, we are concerned about the amount of digital media consumed by children and the way that many parents don't feel they can set any limits for their kids' "screen time." (Most experts define "screen time" as the total time spent in front of screens of all kinds -- that is, TV, PCs, phones, and other digital devices with a screen.) In 2010, The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that kids, ages 8-18 pack in an average of almost 11 hours of media content a day, if multitasking is taken into account. And this represents an uptick of almost 3 hours a day since 2004. If kids follow on this path, we worry that there won't still be time in the day to eat and sleep, never mind go to school. And younger kids are also participating in the digital world. According to another Kaiser report, Zero to Six, kids under the age of 6 are spending about two hours a day with screen media, roughly the same amount of time they spend playing outside, and three times as much time as they spend reading books or being read to.
We don't know what the impact of all this exposure to technology is or will be. Some researchers have hypothesized that children's attention spans are changing; some worry that their brains are developing differently, and some even claim that exposure to technology has hastened evolution so that kids represent a new species of humans. The truth is, this is a story that is still being written. Personal digital technology has only been around for the last 25 years or so, and so we are just now seeing the earliest users become adults. Parents who didn't grow up with constant access to technology often don't understand what their kids are using, let alone how to set limits on such things as Facebooking, IM-ing, and texting.
But parents don't need to understand everything in order to help kids cut down, they only need to set some sort of age-appropriate limits. We know from large national questionnaires of kids (conducted by the Kaiser Foundation) that young people whose parents set some media rules consumed an average of nearly three hours less media content than those who don't have rules. There was also less technology use in kids whose parents limited use through behavior, like not putting a TV in a child's bedroom, turning off the TV during meals, and turning off the TV when no one was watching it. We were startled to learn that only 26% of children reported that there were any rules set down by their parents. We think it is important for parents to stay involved in their kids' digital lives, neither surrendering all control nor trying to get rid of all screens.
Here are some ways to think about setting limits for kids at different developmental stages:
● During preschool years, children are mimicking the behaviors of adults, so parents should be particularly mindful of their own technology use during family time (dinners, playing outside, etc.)
● The benefits of pretend play with dolls and Legos, dress-up and gross motor play are well established. When there is a choice between this kind of play and digital play, kids will be better nurtured with the former. Imaginative play is to digital play as fruits and vegetables are to dessert. A child's diet should have a healthy serving of nutrient rich play.
● Until we know more about what the effects of exposure to technology are on the developing brain, it is wise to limit total screen time to 1-2 hours per day as the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests, with the caveat that screen time should be developmentally appropriate and used as part of a nurturing activity between child and parent. In other words, kids should not be left alone with digital media as a babysitter.
School aged children
● Developmentally, kids this age are learning to share and compromise, and play by the rules, so parents often have luck setting very concrete limits. That is to say, rules such as ‘no more than 1-2 hours of television a day', ‘only G or PG rated movies,' or only age appropriate video games, seem to be relatively easy to enforce.
● Setting firm rules at this age and establishing good media habits will serve parents well as the pull for social networking and texting will enlarge and complicate the media landscape when their kids become teenagers.
● School-aged kids are also becoming increasingly aware of the world around them and more susceptible to the marketing messages from advertising. When you can, DVR a program to spare your child the ads.
● Anyone who has spent time with a teenager these days knows that teens send text messages... and lots of them. According to the Nielsen Company, the average teenager sends more than six texts per waking hour. Some parents have responded to the compulsive texting through an overzealous approach of simply blocking text messaging on their child's phone. But this doesn't really solve the problem, since these kids don't learn to use appropriate media boundaries.
● Parents are better served by helping their teen think though their texting behavior. Parents can ask: Did you ever send a text you regret? Do you know someone that has gotten in trouble because of a text? Have you ever sent a text that has been misunderstood? These kinds of questions prime adolescents to start weighing the pros and cons of their actions, and in turn, will ultimately help them establish socially appropriate behaviors.
● Parents should be able to see their kids' Facebook page, through the process of "friending" them. Teens, particularly younger ones, are prone to posting things impulsively in the very public space that makes up a social network website. Parents can be helpful, by serving as a "double-check," for these public missteps.
● It's a good idea for parents to set expectations around texting behavior. It's certainly reasonable to ban texting at the dinner table, or to ask a teen to put their phone on silent-mode in a movie or at a restaurant. But remember, teens are also looking to adults for cues about how an adult behaves, so you need to set a good example and follow the same rules you are setting.
Although your kids may be the experts when it comes to technology, you are still the experts when it comes to your children's well-being. Even light, intermittent limit-setting can go a long way to staying in charge, even if you're not always sure what you're doing.
Copyright Anne Fishel, Ph.D. and Tristan Gorrindo, M.D., 2010