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Time to Put Your Kids on a Media Diet

Why parental monitoring of screen time improves childhood well-being

There’s an interesting article winding up in parent’s e-mailboxes these days containing an unexpected implied message from late Apple founder Steve Jobs: Manage your child’s use of technology.

A stunned The New York Times reporter remarked “So, your kids must love the iPad?” and apparently Jobs replied that this, well, was not quite the case. “They haven’t used it,” Jobs replied. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

Screen time seems to be taking over childhood. One estimate puts combined exposure at an incredible 7.5 hours a day for kids ages 8 to 18. Surveys show that 72 percent of children go to bed at night in a room with at least one type of screen at their disposal. Hopefully, Jobs intuitive remark is helping get the message through to parents: For their own well-being, we must monitor and educate children about how to use technology well.

A Cascade of Negativity

Study after study suggests that excessive screen time is associated with various negative outcomes. Topping the list: obesity, poor academic performance, aggressive behaviors, attention problems, lack of social skills, and inadequate sleep. Having electronics in the bedroom, including television or a cell phone, may rob a child of an hour of much-needed sleep a night. Too much media time potentially displaces other healthy pursuits including physical, social, creative or academic activities.

Now a new study out of the University of California suggests that the amount of time kids devote to technology may inhibit their ability to recognize emotion. The study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, found sixth-graders who went cold turkey on technology during a five-day camp trip became significantly better at reading facial expressions and with other nonverbal skills than a similar group who carried on life as usual, attached to smart phones, iPads, computers, and television.

This type of research is a wake-up call for parents as well as educators. The capacity to effectively process emotional cues is essential to personal, social, and educational success. As a species we evolved to become productive social beings through face-to-face interaction. There is already plenty of research regarding what children do and do not learn about the social world through media, and evidence suggests that most kids learn better from live interaction than from screens.

Using Technology, or Used By It?

This is not to put the kibosh on technology. When used appropriately, it is wonderful. It’s part of our lives and will continue to be. We just have to make sure our children (and parents, too) use it in a considered, sensible way. When we monitor both screen time and content, children develop healthy, productive relationships with this growing part of our modern lives.

Recent research, reported in JAMA Pediatrics, shows that parental guidance around media does work. In fact, that one variable alone has a positive result on multiple aspects of child development. The study, which involved more than 1,300 third- and four-graders, demonstrated that “parental monitoring of media has protective effects on a wide range of academic, social, and physical child outcomes.”

While more and more technology makes achieving end this a big challenge, it can be done. The American Academy of Pediatrics prescribes that total screen time for children 2 to 18 be limited to two hours a day. It also recommends none at all for younger children. Whatever works for an individual home, creating common-sense, firm boundaries around media is a concrete step parents can take to help children thrive.

Some suggestions:

  • Set a clearly defined daily maximum for children, using timers to monitor screen time.
  • Use independent sources of information about media content, such as Common Sense Media, instead of relying on the industry rating system.
  • Keep screens out of the bedroom. Enhance your children’s sleep habits by powering down their exposure an hour before bedtime, regarding both television and computers.
  • Have a central station in your home for all media as much as possible. A household-wide screen bedtime, with everything put into a charging station away from bedrooms, can be useful as well.
  • Practice good role modeling. The best way to get screen compliance is to set a good example yourself. Consider using an app like “Moment” or “Checky” to monitor your own screen time.
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