Libby Boggs of Olympia says her 10-year-old son, Drake, watches about four hours of television daily: two shows and a movie, plus another hour of video games on the Xbox. If that number sounds high, it’s not. Drake’s techno time actually clocks in several hours below average. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids ages 8–18 spend around 7.5 hours per day using entertainment media.
Boggs supervises Drake’s media time, but she still worries about the amount of time he spends plugged in. “We’re very concerned about screen overuse,” says Boggs, a photographer. Too much time online or in front of a screen drains creativity and imagination, she says, and hurts kids’ ability to learn real-life social skills.
She’s right to be concerned. With young children jumping online at breathtaking speed — tweens’ and teens’ computer time has jumped 300 percent since 1999 — millions of tweens and teens are now at risk for screen addictions, says Michael Osit, Ed.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Generation Text: Raising Well-Adjusted Kids in an Age of Instant Everything.
Increased access to technology makes it easy for kids to slide into damaging digital behaviors. Using the Internet just one hour per day — well below the daily average for American kids — reduces attention span and increases school difficulties, according to one study. And unhealthy digital habits can have serious consequences for tweens and teens, who can carry these addictive behaviors into adulthood.
Experts differ in their definition of screen addiction, but most agree that certain kids seem to have a higher risk. Screen addictions, particularly video-game addictions, are seen more often in boys than girls, says Annette Rembold, a Seattle counselor. Technology addicts share other traits as well. Multiple studies link screen overuse to low self-esteem, social isolation and impaired social skills.
Detecting screen overuse is fairly straightforward, says Daniel Sieberg, author of The Digital Diet: The 4-Step Plan to Break Your Tech Addiction and Regain Balance in Your Life. “Overuse of anything usually means that something else is suffering,” he notes. In other words, if relationships with family members are fading, grades are plummeting or other hobbies are falling by the wayside, parents’ alarm bells should start ringing.
Irritability is a major red flag for screen overuse, according to Osit. “The more time kids spend on screens, the more irritable they become,” he says. Kids may also become hostile when parents try to take away digital devices or restrict screen time. Addictions can also manifest in physical symptoms such as eye strain, carpel tunnel syndrome, headaches and changes in weight.
But parents shouldn’t necessarily ban all screens, even if they suspect screen overuse, says Rembold. Most kids need computers and Internet access to complete homework. And digital devices have some cognitive benefits. According to Osit, using video games and apps can build visual spatial skills, analytical thinking and executive functions.
Digital devices also keep kids plugged into the ever-changing tween social scene. Used in the right circumstances, digital media can serve as an important social platform that lets kids express themselves, feel included and showcase their talents. “Social networking and role-playing games can have a social benefit, especially for inhibited kids who aren’t socially adept in person,” says Osit.
Simply yanking kids’ electronic access isn’t a workable long-term option for most families, so parents need to strike the right balance for tween screen use. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting kids’ screen time to two hours of “recreational” use per day, each family needs to define what flies in their household, says Rembold.
She encourages an open-door policy for screen use: Kids need to have the door open when using technology in their bedroom. When kids turn in for the night, devices should power down, too. Bedroom electronics, including televisions and smartphones, are linked to sleep problems in kids and teens.
Harsh parental mandates may spark rebellion instead of compliance, so ask tweens to contribute to the dialogue about screen use, and set media limits together. According to a study published in Journal of Adolescent Health, when parents and kids agree on screen-time limitations, the rules are more likely to be effective.
Libby Boggs won’t be loosening up Drake’s media limits anytime soon. A well-rounded life includes time for entertainment media along with lots of other pursuits, she says. “We want him to be creative and to be able to have fun in any situation — not just online or in front of a TV.”
Malia Jacobson is a Tacoma-based freelance writer and mom of two.
Smart screen use for tweens
Encourage balance with healthy, reasonable limits for tween screen time:
Choose people over devices
Set a family value that human interaction trumps technology. Shelve your own smartphone or laptop during family time, and encourage kids to use their devices on their own time, rather than during the time they share with others.
Structure an e-day
Work toward a finite beginning and end to your child’s connectedness. Choose when and where kids can use technology — and when and where they need to unplug.
These days, nearly every device comes with parental controls that include passwords and timers to prevent overuse. Take the time to look into them.
Find different ways to play
Remember: In the absence of other attractive options, bored kids will default to using their electronic devices. Find alternative fun things to do — don’t just cut out the digital stuff without offering another idea.
Trust your instincts
If you think your child might be spending too much time on social networks, playing online games or texting, they probably are. That little voice knows when it’s all become too much. Listen to it.