In this time of predominance of electronic devices, parents and caregivers must be mindful about our screen time decisions for children. Studies have already shown effects from copious access to on-screen entertainment that give reason to ponder at what age children should begin accessing devices, how much time they spend with them, under what conditions, and with what kind of content.
I have two children, ages seventeen and ten, and both of them have been described as fitting somewhere on the mild end of the ADHD spectrum. We enjoy a movie together maybe two or three times a month, and we used to play Wii together sometimes (until ours died and I found out Nintendo stopped making the version that required body movement, so I lost interest in having a gaming console around). We still don’t have network or cable TV, but we do have a streaming subscription we don’t use all that much. But in this case, I’m setting aside interactive group screen time, and reflecting specifically on the solitary use by children of screen entertainment devices of all kinds: smartphones, tablets, e-readers, and computers where kids are spending time on their own, whether it’s interacting on social media, web surfing, or gaming. I’m defining interacting on social media as a solitary activity because there’s no engagement with a person who is in the room with them. Similarly I’m defining the experience as solitary if the child is physically with others, but disengaged and mentally lost in the world of the device.
My decisions, circumstances, and simple timing have given them quite different screen life experiences. My teenager was born in 2000, long before I had a smartphone, and had a pretty limited childhood screen diet that somewhat resembled what I had as a kid – though he had a lot more channels to choose from for morning cartoons! I have never in my adult life subscribed to TV, though he watched it at grandma’s house while I worked and attended the SRJC (where he was enrolled in the Child Development Center program). He started using the internet occasionally on my PC at around ten, got a Kindle for reading and games at twelve, didn’t have a flip phone until he was thirteen, and got a basic smartphone at fifteen. He has some forgetful moments, and since I have benefited so much from using my phone as a self minding tool, I imagined he might as well. Even at that age, I saw a tremendous change in his behavior patterns post smartphone, and I often feel like I let him buy a double edged sword. Yes, he sometimes looks things up and uses reminders to get things done, but some of his real life interests – reading and drawing primarily – have devolved to almost exclusively on-screen endeavors. There’s a place for digital art, but I also think something valuable in using the brain body and motor skills together to make art or page through a book is being sacrificed. He moves much less, and frequently adopts a slumped and staring posture as he scrolls through endless social media. I’ve read that doctors are seeing increases in certain neck and spine issues from the body mechanics of looking down at a handheld screen for too much of the time, and I fear that may be happening with my teenager. I also see signs of screen addiction, where I have to remind the kid to put it away when we’re socializing and hanging out as a family, and without even thinking about it his hand just unconsciously reaches for it. On occasions when I have taken the phone away as a consequence there’s a fiery initial reaction, but the kid does a lot more real life things for a while, and will even admit that life seems more satisfying in some ways when the phone is put away. As weird as it is to be taking more control over screen use later in the game, I’m now struggling to come up with a way to let the kid benefit from the structural support the phone offers without letting him “play” on it all the time and he’s almost eighteen. I’m not sure how to handle it, but I have to figure something out.
My ten year old is a completely different story, although ultimately it ends in the same place: caution is warranted and we’re still working out the right balance. He started playing with my smartphone for a few minutes here and there at a very early age, maybe as young as three. He got a Kindle at age nine, watches TV at grandma’s, and saved up to buy his own laptop last year so he can play Minecraft and Terraria with friends over the internet. Although he’s clearly extremely invested in his “screen life” he’s much more devoted to gaming than anything else, and I don’t worry about him becoming sedentary as much, because his “flavor” of ADHD behavior is exhibited in constant wiggles and movement. Despite his vibrant energetic body and sunny disposition, he is vulnerable to screen addiction, and we’ve had to be mindful of his cleverness to make sure he gets the unplugged time and sleep he needs, because he keeps finding ways to access screen entertainment after bedtime, or when we’re engaged elsewhere. Otherwise he is pretty tractable, so it indicates a certain compulsive element that he gets himself in trouble over the urge to sneak his laptop out after lights out. Now I take the laptop to my room with me at night.
I think every child is different, and we have to get to know them as individuals and constantly monitor the situation as devices, technology, and our kids themselves change with time. We also have to be mindful of protecting our kids from a range of harmful outcomes from internet interactions – everything from viewing pornography to being being bullied or influenced by antisocial behavior. Because of these factors, I explain to my kids I have to have the ability to access all their social media accounts, in case I ever need to investigate or take action to protect them from some possible harm. I explain my intention is not to violate their privacy, and that I will never look at their information unless I have reason to think there’s some danger to them.
If I had it to do over again, I would limit solo screen time more than I did, with the “device diet” staying under 30 minutes a day maximum until they were ten, then raising it at the age of eleven to an hour on school days, maybe two or three hours maximum over the whole weekend, either all at once or split up. For me, the important policies I’ve used have been to ban screens in the bedrooms, to allow no more than one hour per day on school days, to be involved and aware of what each of them do with their screen time, and to obtain their passwords and access to any accounts they create so I have a general idea what they’re up to. That way I can start conversations about what they see and encourage critical thinking, steer them away from inappropriate content, or look deeper into situations that concern me.