Joy, a mother of three, recently came to Parents Place because she thought her kids had a serious addiction … to their laptops, phones, and video games. “They spend all of their free time texting, IMing, and playing Wii games,” says Joy. Her concern is warranted, notes Holly Pedersen, MFT, PhD, Parents Place’s Community Education Director. “Studies show that the average 8- to 18-year-old spends about 7.5 hours a day on electronic devices,” says Holly, an expert in children’s use of media, including cyberbullying. “But that doesn’t necessarily make it bad. It’s more complicated than that.

“Because the technology is new and continually evolving,” Holly continues, “there are few definitive studies about the long-term effects of what we refer to as ‘screen time,’ the time spent on computer and TV screens, iPads, iPhones, and other electronic devices. What we do know is that children under 2 should not be exposed to the screens because their brains are developing rapidly and screen exposure may slow learning and interfere with crucial wiring. We also know there’s a strong correlation between violent media and behavioral and school-related problems.

“The research is pretty conclusive that children who engage in video war games and watch violent cartoons and super-hero movies show less empathy, are more desensitized to violence and prone to use aggression to express feelings or resolve conflicts,” says Holly.

In addressing Joy’s concerns, Holly advised her to embrace her children’s way of seeing the world—rather than shunning or banishing it. “The technology is here to stay,” says Holly, “so the question is, ‘How, as a parent, are you going to better understand it so that you can create balance and boundaries that keep your children safe and responsible?”
Balance and boundaries go to the heart of Holly’s recommendations to parents about screen time. “Remember,” says Holly, “you’re the parent. You get to set the rules. Here are my guidelines for establishing a healthy media diet.”

  1. Create a context for technology use rather than using it as the default. This means that instead of allowing children to turn on a device whenever they’re bored or have a free moment, establish a schedule or routine for media use. For example:
    (a) On school nights, allow TV, computer or video games, or cell phone use only after all homework is complete. Then set a media curfew, ideally at least an hour before bedtime.
    (b) When homework is complete, limit electronic devices to one or two hours—whatever you are comfortable with.
    (c) On weekends, limit usage to an amount of time that you and/or your spouse or partner agree upon.

  2. Monitor your children’s usage. Tell your children that you will be checking their phones and laptops periodically to see who they’ve been communicating with and what sites they have been visiting. Explain to them that you’re not the police—you’re dad (or mom) and you’re concerned about their well-being. Give them specific examples (i.e. cyber-bullying, identify theft, damaging computer viruses, phishing scams, online predators) of why you are concerned, using the latest news stories and current events as examples. This is especially critical as children move into middle school, because this is an age when kids are doing more exploration and experimentation with their identity and relationships. Yet it’s also a time when their critical thinking skills and judgment are still developing.
  3. As your children mature and respect your rules, you can respect their need for more privacy and reduce your monitoring of their phones and computers. However, let them know that if you suspect any misuse, you will be investigating.
  4. Remember, filters are available to block access to websites inappropriate for children and young adults. Install them! Know that these are most effective for children younger than 11. As children move into middle school, they will most likely find a way around these programs or will know how to disable them.
  5. By the time that your children are tweens—10 and 11—they have developed an understanding of consequences. Explain to them that the decisions they make, particularly when it comes to electronic media, result in certain consequences. Children need to know that they are creating a digital reputation for themselves based on their online activities. This reputation cannot be erased and could affect their college admission and future employment.
  6. Make sure that your kids are involved in various other activities, such as clubs, sports, art, books, music, or community theater. The jury is still out on the developmental, psychological, and cognitive effects of “screen time,” but there’s no denying that children engaged in a range of interests are more likely to thrive.
  7. Holly and her colleagues at Parents Place regularly address concerns about children and technology on a one-to-one basis or at community- and school-based presentations. To contact them, call Parents Place at 415-359-2443 or email the office nearest you.

Listen to the Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin discussing “Your Kids’ Brain on Touch-Screens.”
Read the Kaiser Family Foundation Study “Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds”