SCREEN TIME IS DEFINED AS TIME SPENT USING A DEVICE SUCH AS A COMPUTER, TELEVISION, OR GAMING CONSOLE.
CHILDREN HAVE SCREENS IN THEIR HANDS AT YOUNGER AND YOUNGER AGES. IS THAT A PROBLEM BASED ON YOUR RESEARCH?
Yes, this is a problem, however it is a very complex, nuanced issue. Milestones in early child development are best supported by quality, everyday interactions with caregivers and their environment; specifically by creating a nurturing bond for the baby/toddler to feel safe, loved, and engaged. Later on, these interactions promote the development of healthy social and emotional abilities and behaviors, as well as establish fundamental life lessons such as the importance of thinking before you act, experiencing consequences, and mitigating challenging behaviors. When a screen starts to replace, displace, or disrupt any of these necessary interactions or milestones, it can become problematic.
WHEN DOES GAMING OR SOCIAL MEDIA USE BECOME COMPULSIVE?
Gaming or social media behavior is compulsive when this activity becomes a priority in someone’s life over other activities (e.g., reduced face-to-face contact, interference with personal family interactions, diminished social life or hobbies, or disruption of schoolwork). To categorize these behaviors as addictive, they would need to fulfill various criteria set out by the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) plus cause a functional impairment in a person’s life for at least 12 months.
WHAT IS THE LINK BETWEEN SCREEN TIME, RELATIONSHIP PROBLEMS, ANXIETY, AND DEPRESSION?
There are MANY determinants of mental health affecting anxiety, relationships and depression. These include one’s school and work environment, family life, peer engagement, level of resilience, genetic risk factors, sleep deprivation, substance use, access to mental health resources, stress, levels of self-esteem and confidence, level of childhood trauma, and shame or self-criticism.
For teen mental health, screen time can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, texting, gaming, and social media provide opportunities for positive experiences, identity development, positive reinforcement, entertainment, communication and social interaction. On the other hand, the digital world presents possibilities for social rejection, isolation, social comparison, social cruelty, fear of missing out, unwanted content, and exposure to inappropriate content – all of which contribute to anxiety and depression.
Determining the precise links between screen time, relationship problems, anxiety, and depression is a critical topic of much needed research.
HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO BALANCE SCREEN TIME AND FACE-TO-FACE INTERACTION?
Balancing screen and face-to-face interaction is, in my view, extremely important. Decades of early child developmental research have found that face-to-face interaction is vital in the development of healthy socialization skills, proper attachment styles, and empathy.
“The Still Face experiment,” when a parent does not engage with their child and simply exhibits a ‘still face’, promotes infant distress. Extrapolating from this, young children whose parents are distracted by their phones and children that are not being engaged by their parents may be highly impacted.
However, technology can also be used beneficially to promote face-to-face interaction with friends and loved ones over video chat, such as Facetime or Skype.
HOW ARE DIGITAL MEDIA AFFECTING YOUNG GIRLS AND BOYS DIFFERENTLY? DOES IT AFFECT ONE GENDER MORE THAN THE OTHER?
With respect to smartphones, studies have found that addiction is equally prevalent among boys and girls. While those with Social Network Use Disorder are mostly female, those with gaming disorder are mostly male. Girls appear to be at increased risk for depression, anxiety, social media-generated adverse social comparison, and body dysmorphic disorder. Other digital media effects, such as displaced or interrupted sleep, appear to be the same for young girls and boys.
WHAT IMPACT DOES LONG TERM SCREEN TIME HAVE ON THE BODY AND BRAIN?
So far, existing evidence has already established linkages between specific media habits and obesity, insomnia, academic performance, aggression, depression, anxiety, and sexual risk-taking.
Preliminary data from recent studies including NIH’s Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study and other research suggests additional reasons to be concerned, namely increased evidence linking screen media exposure to negative mental health outcomes, cortical thinning, and behavioral addictions to video games and other screen entertainment.
Other cognitive impacts that deserve further study include the impact of mobile technology on cognitive functioning, short and long-term effects on memory, whether video games enhance or reduce cognitive capabilities, and what features of media are helpful or distracting when it comes to learning.
Other physical issues need to be explored such as orthopedic and ocular issues.
HOW ARE CHILD-PARENT INTERACTIONS BEING AFFECTED AND WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT IT?
With the average American spending more than 11 hours a day in front of screens, 45% of teens admitting to being on the internet “almost constantly”, and 38% of kids under age 2 use tablets and smartphones before they can speak, parent-child interactions are naturally being affected.
30% of parents text and 16% check social media when with their children.
What can be done:
- Finish your media-related work or screen time before your kids gets home, or when they are in bed or out of the house. Turn off your notifications when you are with your children.
- If you must be on your phone in front of their children, make sure to explain why and what you are doing.
- Engage in screen-related activities with your children to understand what they are interested in and use it as a shared bonding activity.
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN TO SEEK HELP?
Be observant. Does your child seem to be acting different? Are they more emotional and volatile, or withdrawn and secretive? If so, you may want to ask them what’s wrong.
- Does digital media prevent your child from…
- Seeing friends and interacting with them in real life?
- Participating in extracurricular activities they’re excited about?
- Keeping up with school and homework?
- Building positive relationships with friends and family members?
- Getting enough sleep?
- If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, your child may have a deeper issue that needs to be explored
- For teens, typical warning signs include:
- Harming oneself, including burning or cutting
- Speaking/writing about or referencing suicide
- Giving away personal items
- Staying isolated and removed from friends or family
- Lower grades and disinterest in usual hobbies
- Changes in sleeping and eating habits
- Increased crying or mood swings
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO TO ENCOURAGE THEIR KIDS TO DECREASE THEIR SCREEN TIME?
- Be proactive about using media around their children.
- Implement digital curfews before bedtime or during homework.
- Create a family media plan with rules for what type of content your children will view
- Review what is acceptable online behavior.
- Try to not allow individual media use to interfere with family relationships — particularly at mealtimes, playtime, and bedtime.
- Parents can consider the following variables with respect to their kids’ a s to time, content, space/location, age, engagement, and their children’s own disposition.
CAN ADULTS BECOME ADDICTED TO SOCIAL MEDIA?
Yes. As with any form of behavioral addiction, social media addiction can affect any age. But, as adults, we have an advantage over our kids in that our frontal lobes are fully developed. We can be less impulsive (and compulsive) about checking, posting, liking, commenting, and viewing our own and other people’s posts. We can also understand the psychological manipulation of social media better and hopefully guard against it. Behind your phone is a whole industry of psychologists, neuroscientists, and social science experts who use their knowledge of psychological vulnerabilities to capture attention – likes, comments, and follow counts offer motivation, affirmation, and dopamine hits to the brain.
DOES TOO MUCH SCREEN TIME AFFECT YOUR CHILD’S VISION AND POSTURE?
Mobile technology use is associated with chronic conditions caused by poor posture and/or repetitive strain such as neck and thumb pain, carpal tunnel, and headaches.
Digital media use is also a contributing factor in an indoor, sedentary lifestyle, which is associated with obesity and myopia, or near-sightedness. Time spent outside being active is important for developing eyes and bodies. Taking breaks to stretch is also beneficial for posture.
WILL TOO MUCH SCREEN TIME AFFECT YOUR SOCIALIZATION SKILLS?
Screens may play a role in your social skills depending on how much time you spend on them, but other factors are also important such as your disposition and how you engage with media (e.g., is it a game you are playing alone or with others). Are all of your friends primarily socializing through a group chat, leaving few options for face-to-face interaction?
Eight hours a day spent passively watching Youtube alone is very different than eight hours spent Facetiming a loved one. One study found that high consumers of screen time had more trouble making friends compared to those who spent just an hour on day on screens recreationally.
Another experiment involving a 5-day outdoor camp trip for pre-teens found that 100% device-free time and high levels of opportunities for face-to-face time improved the ability of pre-teen participants to interpret nonverbal emotional cues, such as facial expressions. Another study showed that adult’s creative reasoning improved after a 4-day nature immersion trip (again, device-free).
“Text Tom” Questions answered below:
Should phones be taken from teens at bedtime?
Electronic devices should be kept out of the bedroom because they disrupt sleep in a variety of ways. The light emitted by screens reduces the production of melatonin, an important sleep hormone, delays your circadian clock rhythm, and simultaneously can have an alerting effect. A phone underneath a pillow or within arm’s reach displaces sleep through increased use well past bedtime. Text and social media notifications can also interrupt a restful night’s sleep.
Short sleep duration and poor sleep quality, both associated with nighttime digital media use, also relate to a higher risk of performing poorly in school, developing obesity, or developing mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Simple fixes include switching out the phone for a digital or analog alarm clock, and storing devices in common areas overnight.
What effect do these electronic devices have on youth developing their interpersonal skills?
Strong interpersonal skills rely on a constellation of behaviors and habits that encompass clear communication, empathy, body language, listening, collaboration, conflict resolution, and more. Effects are dependent on many factors. Children with different genetic dispositions will develop interpersonal skills at different rates. Some skills require extensive practice over time. Their interactions with electronic devices take place alone as well as with others. Further research is necessary to uncover if and how particular types of device use impacts the development of interpersonal skills.
A child with ADHD who constantly uses an iPad, phone, and TV…how many hours daily would you recommend?
Children with ADHD are all different; and, many other factors, including amount of sleep, age, and the child’s disposition impact how screen use will affect their behavior so it is difficult to say exactly how many hours of screen time is advisable or appropriate.
However, studies show that there is a strong association between heavy screen use and ADHD, so less is more. Between difficulties with controlling their impulses and tendencies toward instant gratification, youth with ADHD can be especially drawn to the highly stimulating digital world. One of the characteristics of ADHD is fewer dopamine receptors in the brain, which may explain behavior geared toward experiences that boost dopamine levels, including online activities such as social media and video games, which have been designed to do just that – raise dopamine levels.
However, it is theorized that over the course of hours of digital media use and high levels of dopamine, the brain naturally decreases the number of dopamine receptors in the reward processing center. This downregulation process continues even when a person is not on a screen and will continue if that person consistently engages in many hours of screen use every day.
For more information and guidance on these topics and more, please visit Childrenandscreens.com
Dr. Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra is the President of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, an international, interdisciplinary, nonprofit organization that she founded in 2013 to support and advance objective, high-quality scientific research, identify and nurture talent, educate and inform the public and provide policy makers with actionable information.
Facebook, Instagram: @childrenandscreens Twitter: @childrenscreen
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