Cyber bullying, human trafficking, the Momo Challenge, blue lights, pornography … the dangers linked to screen time and children can be numerous and alarming. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises limiting screen time to an hour or less each day, but research shows that by the time they're teenagers, kids spend nearly seven hours a day on a device or watching TV.
It's easy for parents to become overwhelmed at the thought of monitoring screen time, especially when so many kids have their own tablets and phones these days. There are lots of organizations and resources out there with guidelines and advice, Common Sense Media being one of the most popular. We also consulted Executive Director of The Family Tree, Marie Collins. A Licensed Professional Counselor, she not only dreams up community programs to improve the quality of life for individuals and families in Acadiana, but she is also the mother of two boys. She has spoken on the topic of screen time at her children's school, Ascension Episcopal, and organized a showing of “Screenagers,” a documentary about growing up in the digital age.
Collins says her thoughts on screen time and digital devices have changed over the years, especially as her kids have entered middle school. She was scared of technology in relation to her children at first and had very strict rules. Some of those rules have eased up over time as she's realized the need to prepare her kids for young adult and adulthood, where screens will most play a role.
Asked about the biggest threat when it comes to screen time, Collins says, “It has more to do with the child in relation to screen time. It's about the way your child responds when they're on and when they're getting off.”
Because each child is different, some can be on a device for hours and turn it off with no problem when their time is up. Other kids have a lot more trouble transitioning.
“You have to treat media as if it were another thing in your house that you have to teach them about,” she advises. “There are all these concerns about predators, but it's really how your child reacts to it.”
It's one thing for kids to be watching mindless YouTube videos, but what about educational games and reading? Collins says that depends on the family. For her kids, doing something productive and creative on a device, like drawing, is allowed for longer periods of time.
“What about a family that doesn't have transportation to get to a library or bookstore,” she asks, “but they have a device and the child has access to books because of that?”
It's tempting to judge parents who do or don't let their kids have access to screen time, but that's just one way Collins points out the many gray areas associated with the issue. In addition to the AAP's hour or less suggestion, there are a few other accepted guidelines out there. AAP has found that the benefits of media to children younger than age two is limited, as adult interaction during this time of development is crucial. Screens during meals or in the hour before bedtime—due to the screen's blue light interfering with sleep—should also be avoided. (The site healthychildren.org has a place where parents can create a personalized Family Media Plan.)
For social media, Facebook won't let anyone under the age of 13 create an account. The same goes for Instagram, YouTube and Yahoo. Common Sense Media suggests assessing your child’s maturity level before getting them a phone, but the general recommended age for this is 14-15.
For Collins, the cell phone issue is another one that has its pros and cons. “You do want to teach children how to talk on the phone or text,” she says. “There are some benefits to it, but I think just handing your kid a phone is asking for trouble. It needs to be monitored like everything else.”
She specifically mentions children with divorced parents and those, like her son, who stay after school for sports and activities. In these cases, the lack of a phone can become a safety issue. Collins recommends creating a cell phone contract with your child and having you both sign it and agree to the conditions.
When it comes to social media, Collins says many parents may not be aware of the dangers involved. In 2018, the Woman's Foundation covered the topic of cyber crime in their “Parenting in Acadiana” podcast. Local mother Blair Suire, whose son was 1 year old at the time, told her story about discovering that a random Facebook user had shared a birthday photo of her son.
Human trafficking is not something most parents want to think about, but the danger is real and making your child's photos on Facebook public and accessible to anyone could open the door for an incident like Suire's. She hadn't realized that her profile and cover photo were still public, even though she had privacy settings in other places. Once she drilled down into who had shared the photo of her son and why, it didn't appear to be innocent. She reported the person to the Cyber Crime Task Force in his area and has since further locked down her account. In the podcast, Suire recommends that parents post only photos of their child with an adult and never mention their age.
Collins talks to a lot of parents who say they just don't understand this stuff and don't know where to start. “I am overwhelmed a lot of times reading this material and it can sound like all doom and gloom,” she admits, “but it does your child a disservice if you just throw your hands up. It's our job as parents to learn about it. You can't control what happens outside of your house, but you can set your kids up to make the right decisions.”
5 Ways to Monitor Screen Time
- Set a Schedule – Schedule screen time the same way you would any other activity, like homework, sleep and playtime.
- Try Other Activities – If your child is drawn to playing puzzles on the iPad, stock up on old school puzzles around the house.
- Monitor Their Activity – It may seem like fighting fire with fire, but there are numerous parent friendly apps that help you monitor your child’s screen time.
- Create Boundaries – Have “off limit” areas. Make a rule that there are no digital devices allowed at certain times or in certain rooms. Ex. bedtime or at the dinner table.
- Be the Example – This one may be the most challenging. Screen time is like everything else, you have to set the example by limiting yourself.