Kids playing video games on smart phone after school

When’s the last time you saw your kid’s face? Not a silhouette or a partial view—but a full-on, forehead-to-chin, look-‘em-in-the-eye view? If you’re trying to remember the last time, this is probably the answer: It was just before you let them use your phone or tablet for the first time. 

Perhaps you’re one of those lucky parents whose child isn’t quite so enamored with technology and still chooses to engage in conversation rather than messaging. But most kids are screen-obsessed from an early age. Who can blame them? Go to any restaurant or doctor’s office, ride the tram or wait for a movie to start, and every adult is looking down at a screen. Why wouldn’t kids do the same? The question is, is there anything wrong with that? 

A few generations ago, parents probably worried because their children were spending too much time listening to their Walkman or playing Nintendo. A generation earlier, parents worried because their children were spending too much time in front of the television. A few generations before that, parents probably had concerns about kids who were spending too much time listening to the radio. It’s doubtful any of those things caused any residual damage. 

So take a deep breath, ignore all the doomsday scenarios predicting a generation of tech zombies, and let’s see if it’s even a problem. 

Do a Google search for “Dealing with screen-obsessed kids” and here’s what you’ll find: Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?, 5 Strategies for Coping With Screen-Obsessed Kids, How To Tell if Your Child has a Screen Addiction, We Quit Screen Time Completely and it Saved Our Kids, and on and on. 

Reading that list of web-page titles, it would be easy to see why a parent would be concerned; however, as with anything, moderation is the key. Children need to enter adulthood with a comprehensive background and a variety of experiences, so sheltering them from technology would be counter to that goal. However, screen time should be just one component in the development of a well-rounded child. 

Are there valid reasons for concern over screen-obsessed kids? Definitely. A study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is tracking over 11,000 children, ages 9-10, to discover how screen time can affect children’s brains, mental health, and emotional development. It’s a study that won’t be completed for a decade; however, preliminary findings show that there are changes in the brains of children who are excessive phone and tablet users, revealing why screen usage can be addicting. Researchers found that parts of the brain’s reward system are most active when children access social media. 

Dr. Kara Bagot, an NIH investigator, believes that screen time stimulates the release of dopamine, which plays a role in cravings and desire, in the same way as addictive substances do. Dr. Bagot says that the dopamine causes children to act impulsively and use social media compulsively. Instead of self-regulating, kids want to keep checking social media so they can keep getting the positive feelings the dopamine provides.

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, says those born in or after 1995—a group she calls the “I-Gen”—are the first to spend their adolescent years with smartphones. She discovered a radical shift in the behavior of those children. While the percentage of those engaging in risky behavior went down, loneliness and depression went up, as did visits to hospital emergency rooms for self-harm. 

Children under the age of two are even more susceptible to the effects of screens because, when kids in that age group are able to make things happen on a phone or tablet, it’s much more gratifying than in older children. Consequently, they are less likely to want to give up the source of that gratification. 

Dr. Dimitri Christakis, from Seattle Children’s Hospital, says that children under the age of two should not have contact with digital media at all. Dr. Christakis showed that parents who think kids in that age group can learn from digital media are largely misinformed. Kids below the age of two, have little ability to learn from phones and tablets because skills don’t transfer at that young age. For example, if you give a child an app where they can play with virtual Legos or virtual blocks, they may become proficient at stacking them on-screen; however, when confronted with the same Legos and blocks in real life, they have no idea what to do, unable to transfer their online skills from two dimensions to three dimensions.  

The final piece to the puzzle is that every app, game, and social media site has been created by teams of engineers and psychologists whose job it is to capture and keep a child’s attention. And those apps, games, and social media sites are updated and improved, often on a daily basis, to make them even more attention-getting and persuasive. 

Earlier, it was suggested that kids using digital media wasn’t that different from kids in previous generations watching TV or listening to the radio, but here’s where that comparison fails: earlier media wasn’t responsive and engaging, it didn’t elicit a reward response that released dopamine, it wasn’t designed by teams of experts to get and keep one’s attention. 

Jean Twenge says that phones and tablets should be tools that you use—not tools that use you. 

So…with all that dire information, why shouldn’t parents be alarmed? Because parents are in a position to supervise phone usage, set a good example, and distract kids with other activities! 

Kids should, of course, be allowed to spend time on their screens, messaging friends, playing games, checking and posting on social media. But the odds are stacked against children ever being able to muster the self-control to stop, so here are some ways parents can intervene: 

Apps 

There are several excellent apps that can schedule and limit screen time, block websites, block apps, block search results, geo-fence, locate and track, and monitor calls, app usage, text messages, contacts and more. Since this discussion is about screen time, we’ll focus on that, and we’ll only list apps that work on both iOS and Android. The highest rated apps all have an annual fee, which may make them hard for many families to afford; however, the most expensive app shown below—$54.95 annually—works out to only about 15¢ per day, which is a fairly small price to be able to monitor your children’s screen activity. 

  • Qustodio – Set and schedule time limits, set time limits for games and apps, plus many monitoring and tracking features. Annual fee: $54.95 for five devices. 
  • Kaspersky Safe Kids – Manage and limit screen time, plus monitor Facebook activity and friends, location tracking and more. FREE for screen time management, apps usage control, and online content filter. Annual fee: $14.99 for premium version for one device. 
  • Net Nanny – Screen time management along with filters and blockers for PC, Mac, Fire, and mobile. Annual fee: $54.99 for five devices.
  • Family Time – Screen management including FamilyPause, which locks your child’s device at any time, plus filters and blockers. Annual fees start at $27 for one device. 
  • Norton Family Premier – Schedule and limit screen time, plus monitoring. supervisory, and reporting features. Annual fee: $49.99 for unlimited devices. 

Actions

Parents can also make progress towards limiting screen time by setting an example for kids to follow. Some suggestions are:

  • Put down your phone – It’s hard to convince your child to limit phone time if you’re constantly using your phone. Whatever time limits you put on your child, put those same limits on yourself so that, for example, your home is totally phone-free between 7-9 p.m. each night. 
  • Be more focused – Research shows that parents often spend more time on their phone than with their kids, causing children to act out when they want attention or need to express frustration. Make interacting with your child a priority. You can use your phone later. 
  • Get screens out of your child’s room – Make your child’s room a relatively tech-free zone. TVs, phones and tablets in a child’s bedroom have been linked to lower test scores, problems sleeping and obesity. 
  • Find alternate activities – Get outside to play and explore with your child. Ride bikes, take a walk, go on a tech-free weekend getaway. If the weather’s bad, teach them to play indoor games. It’s important to let children know that there’s fun to be had even when a screen isn’t involved. 

As Jean Twenge said, kids should use their phone as a tool—to learn, communicate, and create. If parents are worried about the possible mind-numbing effects that over-using a phone might have on a young mind, then it’s up to parents to limit their own screen time along with their children’s screen time, stay off the phone when children are around, and find alternate activities to show children that it’s possible to have fun without staring at a screen.

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