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How Much Screen Time Is Too Much for Kids?

The surprising diagnosis that has parents concerned

Emily Cherkin

Published on: March 12, 2019

What doctors are seeing

Last weekend I met a pediatric sports' medicine physician who told me about the growing number of kids being diagnosed with “text neck.” Because kids spend so much time bent over their screens (an average of nine hours a day for teens, six hours a day for tweens, and two hours a day for kids younger than 8), neurological signals tell the brain “this is our new normal” and kids experience pain when they try to go vertical again.

"But it's complicated: Parents are usually willing to limit screen time for their children but are much more reluctant to manage screen time for themselves."

Interestingly, many parents are not relieved by this diagnosis, the doctor explained, and insist on tests and MRIs to rule out other possibilities. After thousands of dollars and no new information, these parents are forced to confront the original diagnosis and address the amount of time their kid spends looking down at a screen.

The science

There are many other scientifically documented ways in which the extensive use of screens by kids has had a negative health impact beyond posture: vision problems, headaches, sleep deprivation, decrease in cognition, impeded executive function skills, obesity and behavior to name a few.  It seems obvious that children would benefit from less screen time.

But it's complicated: Parents are usually willing to limit screen time for their children but are much more reluctant to manage screen time for themselves. And for better or worse, parental screen use has a big impact on how kids use and view tech. According to a 2016 Common Sense Media Survey, parents spend upwards of nine hours per day connected to screen-based media, and only 90 minutes of that is for work. Additionally, 78 percent of parents believe they are “good technology role models.”

Something is off here. Our kids are in physical pain, and our own management of screen time as adults is subpar. How can we, as tech-dependent parents, help our kids find balance in the modern digital world?

When I speak to parents, one question I get asked most is what parental controls I recommend. My answer often raises eyebrows. I don’t recommend parenting apps, I recommend parenting. Devorah Heitner, in her book Screenwise, says the same thing: “Monitoring cannot substitute for mentoring.”

I will be the first to admit that I am an imperfect user of tech. I have a smartphone, I use Facebook, and I sometimes find myself scrolling aimlessly. But the more I do this work, the more I believe in the importance of talking to my kids (and my husband) about our adult tech use: the good, the bad and the ugly. Research shows that setting limits and parental monitoring have long-term positive benefits for kids. The challenge, of course, is to be consistent once those limits are set.

What parents are doing

Recently, blogger Glennon Doyle described how she addresses this challenge in her own home in a viral post about the drop basket she and her partner leave at the door for playdates. But, there are a variety of ways parents can manage family screen time limits. So, I reached out to my community to see what other creative methods parents use to monitor their children’s screen time.

One mom told me that she focuses on “distraction and displacement” to keep the kids so busy with other activities that they simply don’t have time for screens. Another parent said that for sleepovers, all phones have to stay upstairs for the night.  “Kids don’t love this rule because most of them don’t have to do it at their house,” she said, but “I stand firm with it and now everyone just accepts it.” 

In my own home, we do not have screen time on school nights, and by being consistent we avoid a lot of arguments. The answer is simply “no.” Just like removing shoes when we enter our house, we tell our kids that this is what we do in our family.

Though kids might not like limits on screen time or rules about phones, I remind parents that kids also generally don’t like eating their vegetables, taking a bath or going to bed on time either. Not liking what your parents say or do is a normal part of childhood. But so is saying and hearing “no.”  So we feed them broccoli, bathe them and put them to bed at a reasonable time because it is in their best interest and we want them to have a healthy childhood. The same should go for the limits we set on tech in our homes.

The goal

I recently stumbled on this Brené Brown quote and it's appropriate here: 

“The question isn’t so much ‘Are you parenting the right way?’ as it is ‘are you the adult you want your child to grow up to be?’” No question: parenting is messy, frustrating and hard, and we are definitely going to make mistakes. Technology and screens are an inevitable part of our children's futures, so we need to start modeling healthy habits and setting limits now.

They might just learn to eat broccoli and enjoy balance in their digital lives too.

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