May 24, 2021 - Technology
Column / Tech Agenda

The post-pandemic battle against kids' screen time

Illustration of a girl hanging onto a closing laptop.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

After over a year in which parents let kids sit in front of screens pretty much all the time, reining in their digital fixation will be a challenge.

Why it matters: Some studies have suggested that certain types of digital content such as social media can have addictive qualities, and that consuming too much can be harmful to children, particularly adolescents.

  • Coupled with prolonged isolation during the pandemic, many kids will have a hard time disengaging from devices and re-entering real-life social activities as summer camps and schools open up.

What they're saying: "Brains change when you're spending time online," said Robyn Mehlenbeck, director of George Mason University's Center for Psychological Services. "There's an addictive quality to gaming, so it becomes very difficult to wean off. It's a real crisis right now."

Be smart: Screen time itself is not inherently harmful. It's about the quality and context of the content kids are consuming, said Michael Rich, Digital Wellness Lab founder and associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

  • With addiction — such as to drugs or alcohol — the substances cause physiological changes. That's not the case with digital content or screen use, although behavior changes can occur and it can exacerbate underlying issues like depression or anxiety.
  • "The goal is not to cut out screen time altogether," Rich said. Unlike a substance addiction, where abstinence from the substance is the treatment, the therapeutic goal for screen over-use is teaching self-regulation.

Context: The World Health Organization has classified gaming disorder as a diagnosis, and the American Psychiatric Association is working on internet gaming disorder as a potential diagnosis that requires further research, Rich said.

  • He added that problematic interactive media use is not limited to games — it also includes social media, pornography and what he calls "information binging" such as too much time spent watching YouTube videos and reading Reddit threads.

Quick take: Like many parents, I'm embarrassed to admit how much screen time my kids have become accustomed to over the past year.

  • They are glued to not only "Minecraft," but YouTube videos of other people playing "Minecraft." And they zone out in front of Disney+ and Netflix shows after school work while my husband and I try to finish up our own work.
  • Getting them to shut off the tablets ends up in an epic power struggle.

Driving the conversation: Here are some strategies recommended by child psychologists for parents trying to reduce their kids' screen time.

  1. Include the child: Allow a child to have a say in resetting time limits so they have some ownership of the plan. Mehlenbeck advises parents to let them choose what kind of screen time it will be, such as watching cartoons or playing a game on the Nintendo Wii.
  2. Change the routine: Distract kids with alternative activities, such as going for a family walk, playing outside or visiting a park. "Mixing up the routine can help them out of those habits, and help kids form new habits," said Melissa Whitson, associate professor of psychology at the University of New Haven.
  3. Use a timer: Once you set expectations about screen time limits, set a kitchen timer, use a timer app or set your home's WiFi to cut off at a certain point to stick to the agreed-upon time frame. Be consistent, said Paula Fite, professor of psychology and applied behavioral science at the University of Kansas.
  4. Give incentives: Reward kids when they cooperate with the new rules, Fite said. "We can even use additional screen time as reinforcers for getting other things done, like doing chores without complaining or shutting down a device when asked without a fight," she said.
  5. Be age-appropriate: School-aged kids often rely on laptops and tablets for schoolwork, so try not to make that time count against the screen-time limits. Consider household rules of turning off screens an hour before bed and not taking devices into bedrooms overnight.
  6. Model desired behavior: Kids take their cues from the adults in their lives. Try to cut back your own screen time and frame it as a positive change, not a punishment. The American Academy of Pediatrics has template screen time contracts.

The other side: The psychologists cautioned that some screen time is good. Many educational platforms are useful, for example, and interactive games allowed students to connect with their friends in the absence of real-life socializing.

Yes, but: Too much of anything can lead to unwanted results.

  • Older kids will likely have the hardest time moving between digital and in-person activities in part because they've missed a whole year of real-life socializing during crucially formative years, Mehlenbeck said.
  • "We're going to see some social skill deficits across the board as people are emerging from the pandemic," she said. "I think we're going to see particular difficulties in middle to early high school students."

Reality check: Increased screen time is a pandemic habit that will be very hard to break. But trying to curb it will help kids as they replace computer time with in-person social time.

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