How Bad Is Screen Time, Really?

Experts and media warn against the dangers of screen time for kids and adults alike — but how worried should parents be, really? We spoke to tech experts, pediatricians and advocates to get smart advice on how to handle screen time for children in an educated, realistic way

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Pretty much any parent with a smartphone and a data plan has read the World Health Organization’s latest recommendations around kids and screen time: No screen time for kids younger than 1, with an hour or less for children under 5. These recommendations run sharply counter to the trends in kids’ screen time usage, which has more than doubled in 20 years ... and probably even more thanks to the coronavirus stay-at-home orders (gotta do what you gotta do, however).

Doctors aren’t just concerned about the fact that studies show “excessive screen time has been associated with … cognitive delays and poorer academic performance;” they’re also worried about increased patterns of sedentary behavior, affected sleep patterns and decreased interaction with the adults around them, whether that’s in a classroom or in their home.

But for many parents, who grew up watching TV and find themselves reliant on smartphones (perhaps more than they should), these guidelines can feel punitive or unrealistic. How can the real concerns around screen time be addressed effectively, in the context of a modern family?

Facebook’s head of global safety tells PEOPLE, “It’s important that parents don’t feel judged,” and adds, “One of the things the American Academy of Pediatrics has really focused in on [is] the differences in screen time, and really trying to identify and give guidance to parents on that.”

So how do you determine what qualifies as “quality” screen time, and how do you best apply these guidelines to your family? We interviewed experts, including a spokesperson for Google; Sierra Filucci, the editorial director for Common Sense Media; and Dr. David Hill, a pediatrician who helped write the American Academy of Pediatrics’ 2016 guidelines (and recommends the organization’s handy Family Media Planning tool), to help us sort out all the information around families and screen time.

How do experts define “screen time”?

The AAP discourages “screen time” — defined as anything besides video chatting — before the age of 18 months, then recommends limiting it to an hour a day, “ideally co-viewed with a parent," Dr. Hill says.

Filucci points out that the WHO gets a little bit more granular with their “screen time” definition, discouraging “passively watching screen-based entertainment” but not including more active media consumption like a movement-based video game.

Neither organization differentiates between types of screens, including mobile devices, tablets and television.

Are there different levels of “quality” when it comes to screen time?

The concern around too much screen time is largely an issue of what important activities screens might be replacing,” Filucci explains. For babies and toddlers, that’s interaction, touch and reinforcement from other people; for older kids it’s moderation, supervision, physical activity and uninterrupted sleep.

After video chatting, the highest standard of screen consumption is age-appropriate educational programming consumed with a parent, Dr. Hill says.

“A show like Sesame Street or Dora the Explorer, for example, that has been shown to be capable of helping children learn some skills, is still much more effective if that child is in your lap and you’re playing games and talking about it together," he explains. “The vast majority of apps and programs that claim to teach children really don’t have any evidence to back that up.”

And on top of that, Filucci notes, “All content should be deliberately chosen. Background TV isn’t the best choice because it can limit conversation and expose kids to content they’re not ready for.”

Her website, Common Sense Media, is dedicated to helping parents make those choices, with questions like: Is it age-appropriate? Are there positive messages? Is it an experience they can only have on a screen? Were educators involved in developing it? How can I take learning off-screen when it finishes?

Digital technology lifestyle of school girl child or student using wireless internet for distance learning application and reading e-book app on mobile ipad smart device multimedia computer tablet

What are the biggest concerns around screen time?

When it comes to young children, Dr. Hill says these are the chief concerns about screen time: “Number one, we’re concerned about development. It is clear, especially under age three, that increased media exposure has demonstrated negative effect, especially on verbal development.

Number two, we worry about simple things like kids getting enough sleep and getting enough exercise and getting enough interaction with the adults around them. To that effect we have to remember that our own media use makes a difference. When we are looking at our screens and phones and watching TV, we are not having face-to-face interactions with our children, but that is how our children learn from us. So it’s important for us to monitor our own media use in the same way, to make sure that we are giving our kids the stimulation and attention that they need from us.”

When it comes to concerns around adolescents and screen time, Dr. Hill says, “There is a strong relationship between excessive screen time use and adolescent mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Whether the screen use is the cause of those problems or a symptom of those problems remains controversial. Researchers and now the World Health Organization agree that internet gaming disorder and problematic internet use are real psychological issues that should be addressed. Fortunately, they affect a minority of children, probably under 10% of adolescents total.

We are very concerned about sleep. Research out this week confirmed that many teenagers sleep with their cell phones, and there are abundant studies to demonstrate that this impacts mood, academic performance and attentiveness the following day. So we really discourage sleeping with your cell phone or even really would limit screens for 60 minutes before bedtime because that rich blue light that comes from these screens can really interfere with sleep.

And we are concerned about exposure to violence and exposure to high-risk behaviors. There are excellent studies correlating increased exposure to media portrayals of violence, high-risk sexual behaviors, drug and alcohol abuse with increased participation of those activities among teens. So again, just because your kid is 15 or 16 or 17 doesn’t mean the content no longer matters. It may matter more than ever.”

How has “screen time” changed in the last 20 years?

While many parents today grew up with Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street, which were designed deliberately for the intellectual level of young children, today’s child-focused content tends to be much faster-paced, which doesn’t necessarily promote learning in the same way. As Filucci asks, “How does the show try to keep my kid’s attention: Does it use humor? Relatable characters? Direct interaction? Or, is it all fast-takes and quick edits to create a frenetic pace?”

That frenetic pace, Dr. Hill says, can lead to behavioral issues. One study showed “a measurable improvement in children’s behavior when the content that they were watching was really paced for them and easier for them to follow … We have good evidence that there are behavioral consequences for children watching fast-paced frenetic shows as opposed to shows that are quieter and slower.”

The TV programs today’s parents watched growing up also would end after a certain period of time, whereas sites like YouTube are designed to entice viewers to keep watching forever – and some people have taken advantage of that to publish disturbing content on YouTube Kids (remember the Momo Challenge?). That’s why supervision is more important than ever.

How can parents effectively monitor screen time?

In addition to trying to encourage participation with their kids’ media consumption, there are tools to help parents keep tabs on their kids’ screen use. Google developed their Family Link suite of tools because a spokesperson says their research showed “84% of parents say that their kids’ tech use is a top parenting concern” and they wanted access to “a solution that helps parents manage both the quality and the quantity of their kids screen time.” Among the offerings are the ability to hide certain apps and block in-app purchases, a “time spent” feature for parents to review, the ability to disable devices remotely and GPS monitoring. (Apple offers a similar toolkit now.)

Filucci says setting the limits for your kids at a young age, following the WHO guidelines, can help set you up for success when the issue becomes more contentious down the road with more independent teens. “When kids have clear guidelines, they know what parents’ expectations are and what the consequences are for breaking rules. As kids get older, you can involve them in creating the guidelines, to help them feel more invested in the rules and to start building skills around self-regulation,” she suggests.

Three kids looking down at monitor

When should I give my child a phone?

“Choosing when to give kids their own devices or phones is a very individual decision, but if you can wait, it’s often a good idea,” Filucci says. “The older kids are when they get their first phones, the less management you’ll have to do to make sure they’re being responsible. Also, when kids are more mature, they’ll make fewer mistakes and be better able to understand the consequences of their behavior.”

Dr. Hill and the Google team agrees that there is no one “prescribed age” for devices; it is more about why the child wants it and how equipped they are to manage it. “This is a very individual answer but one that I think families really need to look at mindfully,” Dr. Hill says.

Now that my child has a phone, should I be tracking her usage?

“How do you keep your teenager safe once they own a mobile device and how you enforce the rules around it?” Dr. Hill asks, noting that though there are plenty of tech-based solutions, nothing beats a face-to-face discussion with your child.

“It’s a fairly lousy idea to put on some secret screen monitoring app, because when you find a thing that concerns you, now what are you going to do? When are you going to break the glass and say, 'Oh, we knew that you were visiting this site that we didn’t want you to and we didn’t tell you until now.' Now you’ve got no trust," Dr. Hill says. "Much better is to start with a conversation with your child before you introduce the device about what your expectations are and how to be safe. I think they’ll often find that with the child’s involvement they are able to come up with a plan that everybody can be happy with and agree to.”

Filucci echoes Dr. Hill’s sentiments, and recommends coming from a place of trust and responsibility – while still keeping dialogue open all the time. “You could try giving kids a total allotment of screen time in a week and letting them figure out how they want to spend that time. As kids start choosing more content on their own, you should make sure to discuss with them what type of content is off limits and what requires a conversation first.”

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