by Malia Jacobson
Libby Boggs says her 10-year-old son Drake watches about four hours of television daily – two shows and a movie, plus another hour of video games on the Xbox.
If that number sounds high, it’s not. Drake’s five-hours of techno-time actually clocks in below average. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids ages 8-18 spend around 7.5 hours per day using entertainment media.
Boggs supervises Drake’s media time, but she still worries about the amount of time he spends plugged in. “We’re very concerned about screen overuse,” says Boggs, a photographer. Too much time online or in front of a screen drains creativity and imagination, she says, and it hurts kids’ ability to learn real-life social skills.
She’s right to be concerned. With young children jumping online at breathtaking speed, computer time among tweens and teens has risen 300 percent since 1999. Millions are now at risk for screen addictions, says Michael Osit, a clinical psychologist and author Generation Text: Raising Well-Adjusted Kids in an Age of Instant Everything.
Of course, these habits don’t form magically in the pre-teen years; they begin to take shape as soon as your child starts using a computer and other electronic devices.
Increased access to technology makes it easy for kids to slide into damaging digital behaviors. Using the Internet just one hour per day – well below the daily average for American kids – reduces attention span and increases school difficulties, according to one study. And unhealthy digital habits can have serious consequences for tweens and teens, who can carry these addictive behaviors into adulthood.
Experts differ in their definition of screen addiction, but most agree that certain kids seem to have a higher risk. Screen addictions, particularly video game addictions, are seen more often in boys than girls, says licensed counselor Annette Rembold. Technology addicts share other traits as well. Multiple studies link screen overuse to low self-esteem, social isolation, and impaired social skills.
Detecting screen overuse is fairly straightforward, according to Daniel Sieberg, author of The Digital Diet: The 4-Step Plan to Break
Your Tech Addiction and Regain Balance in Your Life.
“Overuse of anything usually means that something else is suffering,” he notes. In other words, if relationships with family members are fading, grades are plummeting, or other hobbies are falling by the wayside, parents’ alarm bells should starting ringing.
Irritability is a major red flag for screen overuse, according to Osit. “The more time kids spend on screens, the more irritable they become,” he says.
Kids may also become hostile when parents try to take away digital devices or restrict screen time. Addictions can also manifest in physical symptoms like eyestrain, carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches, and changes in weight.
But parents shouldn’t necessarily ban all screens, even if they suspect screen overuse, Rembold says. Most kids need computers and Internet access to complete homework. And digital devices have some cognitive benefits: Using video games and apps can build visual spatial skills, analytical thinking and executive functions.
Digital devices also keep kids plugged into the ever-changing social scene. Used in the right circumstances, digital media can serve as an important social platform that lets kids express themselves, feel included, and showcase their talents.
“Social networking and role-playing games can have a social benefit, especially for inhibited kids who aren’t socially adept in person,” Osit says.
Simply yanking kids’ electronic access isn’t a workable long-term option for most families, so parents need to strike the right balance for screen use. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting kids’ screen time to two hours of “recreational” use per day, but each family needs to define what works best in their household, Rembold says.
She encourages an open-door policy for screen use: Kids need to keep doors open when using technology in their bedrooms. When kids turn in for the night, devices should power down, too. Bedroom electronics, including televisions and smart phones, are linked to sleep problems in kids and teens.
Harsh parental mandates may spark rebellion instead of compliance, so ask older kids to contribute to the dialogue about screen use, and set media limits together. According to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, when parents and kids agree on screen time limitations, the rules are more likely to be effective.
Boggs won’t be loosening up Drake’s media limits any time soon. A well-rounded life includes time for entertainment media along with lots of other pursuits, she says. “We want him to be creative and to be able to have fun in any situation – not just online or in front of a TV.”