All over the world, parents are concerned about the amount of time their children spend on screens. Whether it is their kids watching YouTube, posting on Instagram, playing video games, or binging on Netflix, it’s easy to see that kids are overly attached to their screens. As a child clinical psychologist who studies these issues, I am more concerned about two other concerns: the lack of time kids spend exercising, exploring nature, reading, and hanging out “in real life” and parents giving up on having any control over their kids’ screen time. At the very minimum, modeling appropriate screen time, initiating conversations about a healthy “Play Diet,” and engaging in nature-based family activities are vital.
Twenty years ago, it was easier. Kids played video games, but they were based on a console such as a PlayStation or on the computer and not connected online, so parents could watch them and more or less know what they were doing. Even 10 years ago, smartphones, tablets, streaming, and social media were in their infancy. Studies conducted in 2019 indicate that the average age at which children in the U.S. get cell phones is 10 years, and up to 25% of 6-year-olds have cell phones. A Pew Research Center study from 2010 indicated that in 2004, only 18% of 12-year-olds had phones, but by 2008, 51% had them. The latest 2019 studies suggest that between 84 and 95% of teens now have cell phones. Yes, screens, video games, and social media are not going away! Most parents feel that they have no control over their kids’ access, and they are worried. Should they be?
There is a widespread belief that screen time is bad for children, that it is unhealthy, negatively impacts brain development, and is the cause of inattention and the deterioration of social skills among kids and some adults. There is a sprinkling of evidence that supports these concerns, but most of the data suggest that screen time is a net neutral, or a modest benefit to children’s lives. This is consistent with what kids say themselves. However, there is evidence that excessive amounts of screen time are related to (although not directly the cause of) a variety of difficulties for children, including obesity, lowered academic performance, depression, and isolation. But these are the outliers. Excessive amounts of screen time – for example, more than three hours a day playing video games on a regular basis – can cause difficulties. At the same time, in a world where a 16-year-old earned earned $3 million in the recent Fortnite World Cup for his expertise at playing video games, there is a sense that playing video games may have another set of benefits.
As I read the science, a modest amount of video-game play actually appears to be good for children. It can be cognitively challenging, is clearly one of the ways to connect and socialize with peers, and provides opportunities for practicing a variety of problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. The difficulty, however, is when playing video games or posting on social media are the only things children want to do. This is why my approach to screen time is less about control and more about promoting a balanced and healthy play diet. The basic premise of a play diet is that children’s play is crucial to their learning and development. Play helps kids learn to solve problems, prepare for the future, get along with others, make and learn from mistakes, and structurally build their brains. It’s no accident that all advanced animals and mammals play. And in 2020, playing with screen-based media and video games is just a part of play. So, if it makes you feel any better, there are some benefits to screen time.
For parents who are concerned about the negative impact of screen time on their kids, the bottom line is to focus on what you can control. Model healthy screen use, find ways to help your kids take a realistic view of their screen time, do everything you can to nurture a healthy play diet, and be engaged about screen time rather than throw in the towel.
This is the first of a series of articles that can help you determine ways to create a healthy play diet. It is not easy. You will be fighting the forces of big technology companies that have a lot to gain by having you and your kids spend as much of your day in front of a screen as possible. And the screens are powerful. It’s not the fault of your kids that they want to spend too much time with their screens. Look at yourself. Most adults spend about nine hours a day in front of screens. This is a battle that is unlikely to be won by setting parental controls or even by doing everything you can do to nurture a healthy play diet, and you will need to face this on a regular basis. Think about it in the same way you would a diet you impose on yourself to lose a few pounds. Most diets don’t work. Food diets work briefly, but most people fall back into their old habits. In order to make changes in your child’s screen time diet you need to be on top of it all the time, structuring it so that the behaviors change, not just access to screens.