Screen time for your children: No easy answers

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends strict limits on screen time for kids, and many parents are deeply worried for good reason. In July 2018, the World Health Organization concluded that “gaming disorder” is a new form of addiction for individuals whose jobs, educations, family or social lives have been negatively impacted by video games. Screen time can lead to a refusal to do homework, bathe, eat properly, etc. Some children have been victimized by online predators, and cyberbullying is common. Some parents have even worried to me that excessive screen time may have caused their child’s autism, which it does not.

On the other hand, I recently heard on a podcast, the pulse, that pediatric guidelines in the U.K. have no limits on screens, except for an hour before bedtime. Their belief is that the risks are overblown and that screens are now part of our culture and play an important role in society. In the first-ever guidelines, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) recommends four key questions for families to help sort out their children’s use of technology:

  1. Is screen time controlled?
  2. Does screen use interfere with what your family wants to do?
  3. Does screen use interfere with sleep?
  4. Are you able to control snacking during screen time?

On this side of the pond, a recent article in the Scientific American, “The Kids (Who Use Tech) Seem to Be All Right,” reported that a rigorous new paper, using a new scientific approach, concludes that the panic over teen screen time is likely overstated. This method, using data on over 350,000 adolescents, concluded that technology use has a nearly negligible effect on adolescent mental health including depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, pro-social behavior, peer-relationship problems, etc. Nonetheless, video game addiction is real and may even require residential treatment, but there is scant evidence of what works for this disorder which often overlaps with depression, anxiety, ADHD.  

In my psychology practice, the question of screen time comes up frequently. In some families, screen time seems out of control, and there are withdrawal symptoms when parents then try to impose limits. In contrast, on a recent public television interview, I talked about therapy between a father and 20-year-old son, who had dropped out of college. Because he was playing computer games most of his waking hours, his parents thought he didn’t have real friends, and I agreed…until I talked to him and really listened.

Online gaming can promote social development.

He told me, “They’re real…we play a game where we talk to each other, and it’s all text-based. I don’t know their real names. They have avatars. They don’t know my real name. They don’t know what I look like, and that makes it easy for us to communicate because I have trouble processing language. Text-based — I can think about it, and I can answer.”  He told me that they talk about the game, as well as their disappointments, what makes them happy, and what makes them sad. When I asked if he ever wanted to meet and know their names and faces, he told me they were planning to go to a gaming tournament together. 

This young man totally exploded my idea that online friends weren’t real friends. Even if he wasn’t going to meet them in person, they were real relationships. They talk about their lives and support each other. This type of friendship and can offer needed support and feelings of connection.

While widespread panic seems overstated, ignoring what seems like excessive time spent on technology with negative impact is not healthy for your family. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Is screen time interfering with family time such as meals or other activities?
  • Is screen time causing a lack of sleep which might then result in mood changes?
  • Are grades in school declining?
  • Are social activities with peers lessening?
  • Do you know what your children are doing on their screens?
  • Are you engaging with them around these and other activities?
  • What games are your children playing, especially face to face games, and what are they learning from them?

In the case of children with developmental issues, there are many apps to encourage the development of language skills and reading. In general, using smartphones, tablets, and televisions as babysitters is not healthy. Adults should also self-monitor their own screen time and be positive role models because children need to use technology appropriately and crave our active involvement in all aspects of their lives.

I hope this brief discussion of screen time is useful. If you are concerned about possible addictive behaviors in your family, it is wise to consult a qualified professional.

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