The most frequent concern voiced by parents in my clinical practice is that their kids spend too much time on their screens. This worry is particularly noticeable amongst the parents of kids diagnosed with ADHD, Autism, Learning Disabilities, Executive Functioning problems, as well as those with Anxiety or Depression. Whether it be hours playing Fortnite or complete absorption in their social media streams, kids are often too connected to their screens. I increasingly hear about these issues with children under the age of 10. And it’s not just an issue in the U. S. but occurs worldwide. A recent study of parents in Australia found that their number one health concern was children’s excessive screen time. Many Asian countries report high rates of screen time addiction and have set up video game rehab centers to address these concerns.
The recent phenomenon of Fortnite has highlighted concerns about kids being overly engrossed in screen time. Similar to Minecraft, Fortnite is a sandbox game with exploration, finding new things, and changing environments that engage kids to return repeatedly to the game. But it’s not just Fortnite and Minecraft. Social media, particularly those for younger kids, has exploded over the last few years. Five years ago, Facebook was the main social media outlet for kids, although it theoretically restricted members to age 13 and above. Preteens and teens have left Facebook in droves, and now the most popular social media tools include Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, kick, and TikTok ( formerly musical.ly).
The challenge for parents is that screen-based technologies are incredibly alluring. Most are designed as addictive technology to keep kids engrossed in a state of nonstop engagement. This strategy by technology companies is what parents are confronted with for their kids and themselves and is described superbly by Adam Alter in his new book Irresistible. Many parents at least have the capacity to recognize that doing things other than staring at the screens is not only necessary but healthy. However, for kids growing up in the 21st century, ever-present technology may be all they know. Finding a proper balance between one’s involvement with screens and time spent in other activities is crucial for healthy child development. In the long term, most child psychologists and pediatricians believe that this balance will be crucial for children’s sense of happiness and contentment as adults. Parents are encouraged to start on this process now!
Here are things that parents can do about excessive screen time:
Talk about screen time with your child. It is helpful to talk about finding a balance of play and work activities in one’s life even with children who do not need limit setting with their screen time because they are actively involved in a variety of other things. Complimenting children on their decision making in this regard can be helpful even for those who use technology on an occasional basis.
Practice what you preach by balancing screen time with other activities. Modeling behavior is far more powerful than telling children what to do. Demonstrating a well-balanced play and work diet can help children to moderate their screen time and to include other positive activities in their lives. Parents could use their digital media in public areas of the house to make themselves more aware of the time they spend in front of screens. This would also help to establish rules for where the children use their screens.
Evaluate limits on screen time before setting limits with your child. Observe her closely and keep a daily log (jot it down in your calendar or planner or create a note on your computer) to see how much time she spends with technology. Does she spend most of his time on the computer doing homework or does she spend a disproportionate amount of time using Facebook and Instagram or messaging on his smartphone? Collect this information for two weeks, separating school days from weekends, and then use your findings to have a candid discussion with her about her use of screen time. It would also be helpful to keep a non-digital play log that tracks the amount of time she is engaged with a variety of activities around the home that do not involve technology such as homework, chores, physical activities, and non-digital play. The focus of both of these log-keeping exercises would not be to limit your child’s play but for each of you to develop an awareness of how she spends her time.
Enforce expectations before screen-time usage. Have a very clearly defined set of parameters that need to be fulfilled before access to screen time. Parents do not need to be actively involved in monitoring behavior to make this an effective approach. Enforceable expectations could include guidelines such as after your child’s homework is done after she plays outdoors, or after she completes her chores. Enforceable expectations work best for children who are doing well in most areas of their lives but may occasionally get too immersed in digital play. This type of strategy helps them to prioritize and also assures parents that they do not need to be overly concerned about the overuse of technology because their children have many other interests.
Note: This article is one of a series of posts about Fortnite. In the past month, I’ve been approached by many new services, including Fox News.com, WBZ radio, and Bloomberg News, to provide an expert opinion on the pros and cons of children playing Fortnite. My basic message has been that Fortnite is inappropriate for children under the age of 13, as it is built in a way that can encourage overuse or, in rare cases, even addiction to the game. However, it can also provide opportunities for developing skills such as planning, organization, flexibility, problem-solving, and, in some modes, collaboration. At the same time, I have a sense of discomfort with the storyline of Fortnite, where the objective of the popular Battle Royale game is to kill everyone so that only you survive. This one-for-all motive in the game promotes selfishness and lack of empathy for others that permeates our societal and political environment in 2019.