The scene is a familiar one: a group of kids gathered in the same general area - perhaps at a park or lounging about on couches during a family get-together. They appear to be hanging out, yet no one is talking.
Instead, each is absorbed with the light emanating from a cell phone or tablet held in their hands, almost oblivious to one another’s presence.
While this scene certainly isn’t exclusive to kids, there’s a sense that those who develop poor screen time habits when they’re younger will carry those habits and dependencies into young adulthood and beyond.
As parents, where do you strike a balance between the ubiquity and utility of digital devices and the effect that too much screen time can have on the development of social and communication skills in children?
Too much screen time in children has been linked by research to social isolation, weight and exercise problems and negative impacts on familial closeness and attention spans.
According to the BBC, a study from market research company Childwise estimates that children ages 5 to 16 spend an average of 6.5 hours in front of a screen per day. The study looked at 20 years of data and found that kids age 5-10 doubled their per day screen time from 2.5 hours in 1995 to 4.5 in 2014. Teenage boys spend an average of 8 hours per day in front of a screen, according to the study.
But screens are everywhere - in our classrooms, workplaces, vehicles, most rooms in the house, in our pockets and sometimes on our wrists. With the advent of virtual reality on the horizon, that trends appears only poised to grow.
What’s a parent to do in the face of all this digital distraction?
What an expert says
Marie Hartwell-Walker is an Amherst, Mass.-based psychologist and family counselor who has researched and written extensively about the relationship between children and their digital devices.
She offered several tips from her research on best digital practices when it comes to kids and technology.
Set a good example
Hartwell-Walker said parents who are constantly connected can inadvertently communicate to their children that the internet is more important than their relationships.
For example, she said, when coming home from work avoid pulling out your phone right away. The same goes for moments of idle downtime when you might otherwise be gunning for a high score in Candy Crush. When your kids are present, she said, be present with them. Limiting the ubiquity of technology in your own life will rub off on them, she added.
“I stress that kids do as we do and not as we say,” said Hartwell-Walker.
Set ground rules early
Hartwell-Walker recommended that new parents set ground rules for their children regarding digital devices from a young age. For instance, a rule that disallows any devices at the dinner table during meals or during household chores. She encouraged the dinner table to be a center of conversation about each family member’s day or current events.
“That kind of constraint sets a standard within a household,” she said. “Confining the use of screens to specific times and places and not letting it be the background music for your entire life.”
She also recommended not allowing children to go to bed with devices in their rooms, including TVs and cell phones.
Such distractions, she added, can negatively affect the amount of sleep children are getting. Even having a cell phone on a bedside table is a bad idea, she claims, as the constant alerts that come with many apps can interrupt sleep even if a child doesn’t fully wake up from the repeating lights and sounds of the device.
Better late than never
For those parents who have not instituted digital device rules from an early age, Hartwell-Walker said it’s OK to stop that cycle and explain why new rules are being instituted.
“It’s really fine to call a family meeting and apologize to our children profusely for not doing our jobs,” said Hartwell-Walker. “Then institute a gradual change of rules together, leading by example.”
What a local parent says
Ruth Finnegan of Clifton Park has four boys: a one-month-old, 6-year-old, 9-year-old and an 11-year-old. The 6-year-old has an Amazon Kindle, while his 9- and 11- year old brothers have a Samsung tablet and Samsung smartphone (without cellular data), respectively.
The three older boys hit the bus stop in the morning around 7:30 a.m., and return home around 2:40 p.m. After they get home they’re allowed one hour of “official” screen time, said Finnegan, who can monitor how her children’s digital time is spent via an app called Screentime. The app allows her to see what apps her children have downloaded, how much time they’ve spent using each one, and shuts off the devices when the hour time limit is up.
Finnegan, a stay-at-home mom, said she too understands the allure of allowing her children free reign on digital devices, and before using the app had to be diligent in her limitation of such distractions. She added that her kids mostly play games, and download and change apps on an almost-daily basis.
“Even though I know the best thing for my kids is to not be on a screen, when they are on a screen it’s easy to get busy doing my own thing,” said Finnegan.
During the school year the boys usually grab a snack right after getting a home before hitting their respective screens. Finnegan usually encourages them to go out and play before their hour time limit is up so they have a little screen time before bed.
Caveats exist. The boys will get more screen time when the family is on a road trip or when they sleep over a friend’s house. Time spent as a family watching a movie or TV show does not count towards individual screen time. The Finnegans have basic cable but it goes mostly unused, supplanted by digital subscription services like Netflix.
None of her kids have TVs in their rooms, but her oldest has a DVD player in his room that he can use to listen to audiobooks before bed.
“You can’t monitor what they’re watching and there’s a lot of inappropriate stuff on TV,” said Finnegan. “And I find if my kids watch a show that’s really annoying then my kids become really annoying. They take on the characteristics of what and who they’re watching.”
She also does not allow her boys to go to bed with their devices.
“You can’t monitor what time they go to sleep and they’re emotional tyrants the next day if they don’t get enough sleep, it’s not worth it,” said Finnegan. “And I think overall kids become way more creative when they can’t zone out. They will find ways to entertain themselves and do stuff if they don’t have a screen.”
On the weekends Finnegan, along with her husband, Sean, do not allow the boys any screen time before noon.
“That has forced them to play, they’ve learned how to self entertain because of this rule,” she said. “The rule is they’re also not allowed to bother us, they’re supposed to be able to entertain and we’re supposed to sleep, but it doesn’t always work.”
One important aspect of the Finnegans digital device rules is that, despite the few caveats, there’s not much wiggle room. The boys do sometimes break the rules, but quickly get back on track when their mistake is pointed out.
“I think the thing is firmly establishing the rules where it’s not nebulous, where one time they can do this and another time they can’t, you set the rules and you stick to them,” said Finnegan. “I don’t do ‘OK you have five more minutes.’ [Screentime] just takes care of that for you.”