It seems new research is released every week warning parents of the dangers of prolonged exposure to screens, including problems with attention, social interaction, sleep quality, obesity, mental health, behavior and more. How can a parent safely navigate such open water?
As children get older and carry phones with them, limits become more difficult to enforce. Technical supports can help monitor activity, manage time, filter inappropriate content and set restrictions by user. Many smart Wi-Fi routers come with built-in parental controls and network protection.
Apps like Qustodio and Screen Time give parents control, while the plug-and-play device eBlocker blocks ads, stops trackers and hides your IP address, allowing anonymous surfing on all devices.
According eBlocker CEO Christian Bennefeld, “It’s not just about ‘how long?’ but also ‘what for?’ and ‘with what?’ in addition to ‘when?’ For example, a teen who checks messages on his smartphone every few minutes may not spend much time online, but he will have trouble concentrating on homework.”
NEED A SCREEN DETOX?
Child psychologist and mother of four Heather Dukes-Murray offers six steps:
- Set time limits and stick to them. Communicate the rules to other caregivers for consistency. If your child is always on screens, gradually decrease the time.
- Expect a protest and meltdowns, which will subside after 7-10 days.
- Implement your plan during a busy week of other activities.
- Keep devices in a central location to help enforce the rules. Establish that they belong to you or the family. Making a tablet or gaming system your possession to lend to your kids changes the culture of the device.
- Make a list of screen-free activities.
- Model appropriate screen use. For starters, put your phone out of reach and turn off app notifications.
SHOULD I USE SCREEN TIME AS A REWARD?
“Video games and screens can be a powerful incentive, especially if the child does not have access to these devices otherwise (like my children),” says Dukes-Murray. “Be very specific about what behavior is expected to earn the screen time, what screen time is being earned and how long the screen time lasts.” For example, if the child must complete four chores, he/she can earn 15 minutes for each one completed, totaling up to one hour of screen time.
Developmental and behavioral pediatrician and author Dr. Richard Solomon stresses the prioritization of unplugged playtime for development and suggests using media when you need a break, such as while cooking or cleaning. “Limiting screens of all types to an hour a day and two hours on weekends for children three and older is a good policy for families, including those with special needs,” Solomon says.
“Our kids, whether little ones or teens, aren’t going to set their own limits. We have to do it for them,” Dukes-Murray reminds us.
Rachel Stallard, mom of three, knows this struggle, having worked in media for years and writing a blog that requires screen time. She has a strict family policy and enforces it.
“I tell my kids a device should never be your first choice, so they have to pick up a book — or, in the case of my toddler, look through a stack of them — first,” Stallard says. “They have to do another activity for at least 30 minutes beforehand. Oftentimes, they’ll have fun and forget they wanted the screen.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises families to avoid screen exposure an hour before bedtime, remove devices from bedrooms and discourage entertainment media while doing homework. Take into account the individual needs of each child and these general guidelines:
- Under 18 months — Withhold screen exposure with the exception of video-chatting.
- 18-24 months — Co-view high-quality programming to help them understand.
- 2-5 years — Limit use to 1 hour per day of child-friendly, parent-monitored content.
- Ages 6 and older — Set consistent limits on time spent and types of media. Discuss online safety and respect as children gain independence and learn responsibility.
- Teens — Ensure privacy practices as use of social media increases. A recent study in Clinical Psychological Science identified a correlation between the amount of time spent on electronic devices and higher levels of depression and suicidal thoughts when time exceeded 1-2 hours of recreational use per day.