Screen Time: The Major Concerns

TABLE OF CONTENTS D.N.T.

#1 Technology is materially altering our relationships

For the first time, teens report that they now prefer texting to spending time with friends in-person according to a recent study by Common Sense Media. This is a significant and eye-brow raising shift, particularly when we know that personal contact has sustained our social-emotional and mental well-being throughout history, and that our very survival has long depended on the strength found in community.  

The alacrity of this trend is equally disquieting, with the decline beginning in 2012 when only 37% of teens owned a smartphone to today when that number is 95%. While our ability to communicate en masse more easily through social media, email and texting creates more connection in theory, there is a prevailing concern that it actually creates undue busyness that ultimately results in more disconnection. These emergent behavior patterns may actually be feeding the current loneliness epidemic.

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#2 Screen time may interfere with the development of empathy, social skills, and focus

Today’s parents are justifiably befuddled when we watch kids in the very same room text each other instead of talking, or hang out together publicly with everyone’s head bent over their screens. While concerns that today’s kids won’t have the requisite social skills to get a job or find a life partner may be a bit far-fetched, we do know that face-to-face interaction is key to developing empathy and sensitivity to others.

A UCLA study found that “sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions, than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.” And Stanford researchers surveyed nearly 3,500 girls ages 8-12 and found that the ones who spent the most time multi-tasking on various devices, were the least likely to develop normal social tendencies.

In another study, researchers followed more than 2,500 Los Angeles high school students over two years. They began by asking the teens about symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and their digital media habits. While none started with ADHD symptoms, those teens who spent more time on digital devices were 10% more likely to show signs of ADHD after two years.

The researchers theorized that “adolescents who are constantly getting notifications…may lose their ability to focus and stay engaged in tasks like schoolwork for long periods of time. Binge-watching videos…might interfere with the development of patience, impulse control, and the ability to delay gratification.”

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#3 The tech industry is using psychology to make technology more addictive

What many parents and the general public don’t realize is that the tech industry employs thousands of psychologists to use persuasive design to help them maximize profits by making their products more ‘sticky.’ Persuasive design zeros in on how to influence human behavior through screens. When used in tandem with online games and features such as autoplay, it conditions children to demand instant gratification.

According to Richard Freed, an adolescent psychologist, “This alliance pairs the consumer tech industry’s immense wealth with the most sophisticated psychological research, making it possible to develop social media, video games, and phones with drug-like power to seduce young users.” And as psychiatrist Dr. Clifford Sussman describes,” This causes a decrease in the ability to feel pleasure resulting in a need to seek more stimulation.” So concerning are these issues that over 200 psychologists directed a letter to The American Psychological Association in August of 2018 to register their objections.  

The day-to-day reality for teens is troubling with Common Sense Media reporting that 50% of teens feel addicted to their phones and Pew research cites that 42% of teens surveyed feel anxious without their phones. It’s no wonder that those closest to the forces at work behind the scenes are also the ones to deliberately avoid technology for their own families. Notoriously, Steve Jobs wouldn’t let his kids anywhere near an iPad, Bill Gate’s children had to wait until they were 14 to get a smartphone, and Tim Cook does not endorse social media use for his teen-aged nephew.

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#4 We don’t know what screen time is doing to our children’s brains

While no one has officially determined that screen time is addictive or that it definitively causes permanent harm to our brains, the American Academy of Pediatrics has taken a firm position for children under the age of two.  “In order for the brain’s neural networks to develop normally… a child needs specific stimuli from the outside environment….these essential stimuli are not found on today’s tablet screens.”

Other physiological concerns include over-exposure to blue light. These are the light waves emitted from digital devices, which may contribute to eye strain and the risk of macular degeneration (permanent vision loss). Researchers have also documented that exposure to blue light before bedtime can delay sleep by interfering with circadian rhythms. That’s the last thing we want as parents!

In the face of what continues to be many unknowns, the most important step parents can take according to Polly Ely, a family therapist specializing in the impact of technology on children, is to pay attention to the reaction when the technology gets turned off or taken away. If children majorly resist, throw tantrums, or complain that they’re bored or unhappy without screens, then those are clear signs that children need a technology break. 

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#5 Screen Time increases the potential for conflict

While there many positives to technology, one of the most disheartening aspects of life in the 21st century, is the degree to which it can also inflict strife when it comes to relationships.  

With Your Child

The battles over screen time can begin at an early age. When considering that these devices were designed to be addictive, it’s easy to see how kids are sucked in.  Extremely rare is the child who can turn technology off, and say, “That’s enough for the moment.”

In their 2016 study, Common Sense Media reported that one-third of parents and teenagers argue daily over screen time. The needs for parental intervention can vary greatly by child, even resulting in different rules for different kids within the same family. Often children need to be reminded that free time is not synonymous with screen time (see our TimeWise calculator in Best Tools), and good alternatives are key (refer to Best Practices). 

With Friends and Family

Potential conflicts inevitably arise when families have different screen time rules:

  • A dear friend arrives for the weekend with her two youngsters and you discover your kids huddling around their iPhone
  • You turn up to a group dinner–some of the kids have devices and some do not
  • You’re driving carpool and some kids are zoned out, but your kids aren’t allowed to be on devices in the car

Having access to individual screens can also undermine social bonding within your own family:

  • Your kids fight you on having a Family movie night because they’d rather be cuddling up with their own personal screen
  • Siblings resist watching together because it means having to negotiate over what to watch and reach agreement

Within Communities

Because there are so many landmines and potential for misuse, some parents are banding around the Wait Until 8th Grade campaign to give your child a smartphone. These types of campaigns can be embraced within a school community, but can also create division with parents citing peer pressure as a factor.

While understandable why some parents want to go this route, it’s equally understandable why some parents do not. They may: 

  • Need the convenience of communicating with their tween outside the home
  • Prefer their kids having access to music and a camera all on one device that they can trace
  • Feel more comfortable giving their pre-teen increasing independence when they can track their whereabouts remotely.
  • Want to teach their kids healthy digital habits while they still wield the most influence.  

Parents will always vary in their views but imagine the impact if everyone at least agreed to make sure their kids’ devices blocked explicit content and agree to suspend judgement. 

  1. Teens prefer textingCommon Sense Media 
  2. only 37% of teens owned a smartphoneCNet
  3. 95% of teens own a smartphone Monica Anderson, Jinjing Jiang, Pew Research Center
  4. Connection Disconnection – Marina Rose, Medium
  5. Why are young adults the loneliest generation? Rachel Simmons, The Washington Post
  6. UCLA study – Stuart Walpert, UCLA Newsroom 
  7. Screen Time ADHD – Lisa Rapaport, Reuters
  8. Los Angeles study of high school students – Mark Milan, CNN Business
  9. Tech Industry War on Kids – Richard Freed, Medium 
  10. How much is too much screens – Delaney Ruston, Screenagers
  11. 200 psychologists sign letter to APA – Screentime Network 
  12. Common Sense Media’s May 2016 study -NPR
  13. Teens and Parents and Screen Time – Jinjin Jiang,Pew Research Center
  14. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Tim Cook limit screens –  Sarah Berger, CNBC 
  15. Children and Media Tips – American of Academy of Pediatrics Recommendations
  16. What screens do to kids – Liraz Margalit, Psychology Today 
  17. Blue Light Exposure – Gary Heiting, All About Vision 
  18. Blue Light Interferes with Sleep – National Sleep Foundation
  19. One-third of parents and teens argue daily over screen time – Common Sense Media
  20. The Community Effect – Nellie Bowles, The New York Times 
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