Now that summer is in full swing and kids are out of school, many are maximizing their time at their favorite location — in front of their screens. Many parents are asking: “How much is too much?”
This is a good question. We live through times of tumultuous technological change. The percentage of teens with smartphones has skyrocketed: 37 in 2012, 73 in 2015, and 89 at the end of 2016.
What effect is this drastic rise in device use having on our youth? A new report indicates that the more time teens spend on screens, the lower their psychological well-being becomes. The report also shows that adolescent self-esteem, life satisfaction, and happiness plummeted after 2012, the year that smartphone ownership reached the 50 percent mark in the United States. Other research indicates that increased screentime is associated with adolescent depression, anxiety, insufficient sleep, inactivity, drinking sugary beverages, and poorer connectivity in brain regions governing language and cognitive control. Further, there are reports linking heavy use of social networks to feelings of isolation.
None of this is to say that our children’s screens are evil or that we need to start hosting iPad burning parties. Parents need to accept that screens are now an integral part of our world and they are here to stay. That being said, parents must remember that their role, in the presence of screens, is no different from what their role has always been, which is to parent their children. As parents, they have the right to put in place age-appropriate limits and expectations regarding screens, which take into account inappropriate content, overuse, neglect of household chores or family responsibilities, and important health-promoting activities. Parents must also remember that there is no substitute for actual parental involvement in their children’s lives. Filters are often bypassed on mobile devices, and the best of filters will not be there to advise our children about how to healthfully spend their time.
My general advice to parents is to push off giving their children a device for as long as possible. It is fine for preteens to use an iPad, smartphone, etc., but the parent should set down a consistent and clear schedule of when the child is allowed to use it and what he is allowed to do on it. Of course, such use should always be in a public place in the house, so the parent can monitor the child’s usage.
Screen rules should evolve as the child enters the adolescent years. Still, parents must remember that age is less important than overall maturity in deciding when to allow more freedoms to his or her child. I see nothing wrong with insisting on reasonable guidelines up to age 18 (or even beyond). For example, it is totally reasonable to expect that a teen has a designated “power-down time,” from a certain point in the evening until the next morning. Further, some teens may be in need of more supervision, and it is the parent’s right to insist that, at least in the home, the internet only be used with adult supervision, and the parent can set up the home technology to make sure this rule is followed.
In our struggle to teach our children sane and balanced use of devices, we must remember that if we make our focus anti-screen, we have already lost. We do not effectively teach our children if we use a negative focus. We must share with them our joy about all the wonderful things to experience and share in life — swimming in the ocean, singing together around a piano, jokes and stories shared at Shabbos meals, offering a friend a shoulder to cry on, and the pleasure of team sports. All these activities inherently involve turning away from screens and turning to something that brings so much more joy.
By Dr. Michael Milgraum
Michael Milgraum is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Kensington, Maryland. He sees children, adults, and families for therapy, parenting advice, and evaluations.