Parents Should Start the New Year by Reassessing Their Kids’ Screen-Time

Naomi Schaefer Riley’s new book, Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat, will be published January 8, 2018.

“God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” That’s what Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, said recently about the social media giant. He explained: Facebook “literally changes your relationship with society, with each other” and then called it “a social-validation feedback loop.” Parker, who has two toddlers, is only the latest in a list of high-powered tech parents to announce their deep-seated concerns about the devices, programs and apps they have helped to create.

Though such admissions might be a wake-up call for some parents, in reality these tech titans have no secret knowledge about the dangers of screen-time. Facebook (so far as we know) is not conducting clandestine experiments on children’s brains in the backrooms of Silicon Valley offices. These mothers and fathers are merely giving voice to what most parents already know about screens from watching their own kids.

In a small nationally representative online survey I commissioned last year, I asked parents about the time their kids spend on screens. For parents whose oldest child was six, 30% say they have too much time. For parents whose oldest is between 7 and 12, 56% say this. And if the oldest child was between 13 and 17, 62% thought they were on screens too much.

These sentiments were echoed by dozens of parents I interviewed around the country. Once they started listing their concerns about screens, it was sometimes hard to get them to stop. One mother of four in Washington told me that when her oldest child was two, she hadn’t watched much television, but then her husband was away for a long period: “I used screen time as a crutch.” With the addition of more kids, she realized, “It [became] the priority of the day. When are we going to watch? Who is going to pick?” A stepfather of two teenagers outside San Francisco told me, “the kids would get sucked into the screen. The amount of time they were on their phones was ridiculous.”

A mother of two in suburban New Jersey takes her middle-school daughter’s phone away at bedtime, but she sees that the girl’s friends have been texting half the night. And she worries that just knowing this is going on is making her daughter more anxious. A father of two girls and a boy in Cleveland says, “With my daughters, I worry about the ‘mean girls’ stuff. With my son, I worry about the porn.” He tries to monitor their phones and computers but he wonders if he’s doing enough. “It’s a never-ending fire hose. Technology and media is changing so fast that I can’t keep up.”

These parents are right to worry. There are no longitudinal studies yet about the effects of smart phones and tablets on children, but researchers say that we can apply much of what we know about television and video games to this question. For young children—and many older ones—tablets and smartphones often act as nothing more than portable televisions or game consoles.

Tim Smith is principal investigator of the Tablet Project, a research center at King’s College London devoted to studying the effects of touchscreen devices on the development of infants and toddlers. Summarizing 60 years of research, Smith notes that television “seems to have an independent contribution to various negative outcomes for children, including language delay, poor physical health and possible delinquency, and later criminal behavior.”

It is not just time spent staring at a TV that influences outcomes for kids. It’s also the screen as background noise. Heather Kirkorian, who runs the Cognitive Development and Media Research Lab at the University of Wisconsin, notes that “more hours of background television in the home negatively predicts cognitive abilities for kids at four years of age.”

Sure there is some evidence that educational television can improve academic outcomes—but this is mostly true for disadvantaged children, and mostly if parents are actually watching alongside them and asking questions about the show. And really, how often does that happen?

The popular assumption goes that games are better for kids than televisions because they’re more interactive. There have been studies that suggest there are improvements in spatial recognition and reasoning that come from playing video games. But Smith notes, the data on whether there is a real cognitive benefit is “mixed.” He says, “Those kids spending time playing games are trading off other activities.” And those activities—like reading, playing outside, or hanging out with friends—have real social and intellectual benefits.

So what about touch screens for young children? “Interactive features can help or hinder learning,” says Kirkorian. Looking at children between the ages of two and five, she has found that many kids learn more from watching someone else play a game on a screen than when the kids do it themselves.

Indeed, even as children get older, there is little evidence that technology improves learning—either in the classroom or out of it. Certainly “blended” classrooms have the ability to tailor instruction to individual students. But whether that is worth the trade-off of so much distraction is an open question. Many college professors are banning laptops because research shows that students retain more material when they take notes by hand. The kids who suffer most from the distractions of technology in the classroom tend to be the ones who are already struggling academically.

The effects of screens on older children are widely acknowledged. It is not only the “social-validation feedback loop.” It’s the sexting, online bullying, early exposure to pornography, shortened attention spans and problems with social interaction. In her recent book iGen, psychologist Jean Twenge suggests that higher rates of depression and suicide among millennials may be tied to their use of technology.

Megan Moreno, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital who helped to craft the guidelines for technology use by the American Academy of Pediatrics, says fewer than 1 percent of kids have a true addiction: These kids are “unable to complete everyday activities.” But there are another 5–7 percent whose use of technology is “problematic,” causing issues like depression, an inability to socialize, and low impulse control.

Oddly, a number of researchers I spoke to seem sheepish about advertising their findings because they are concerned that it will turn into another occasion to shame parents. Kirkorian worries that “some parents feel guilty if their kids” are exposed to the slightest bit of technology.

Pediatricians and parenting experts understandably don’t want to add to the burdens of parents who are already stressed out. But by holding back—by never simply saying that when it comes to screen time less is more—they are not giving parents the best information. They are only adding to the chorus of voices in business, in education, and in our community pressuring us to hand over devices.

The parents I interviewed feel beaten down by the constant demands for screens. While we may have the best of intentions in terms of limiting access to screens, our lives are full of exceptions. When the line at airport security is too long, when the restaurant is not making kids’ meals fast enough, when there is traffic getting home from school, when our bosses demand that we work in the evening or over the weekend, it is easy to justify pulling out phones or tablets. But if you’re one of the many parents hoping to turn over a new leaf this year when it comes to screen-time, trust your gut. The research—and a few parents in Silicon Valley—will back you up.

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