Are Parents to Blame for Too Much Screen Time?

Children’s screen time continues to be a major modern-day health concern.

Research by Dr. Patricia Greenfield of UCLA demonstrated that middle schoolers who did not use screens for five days were better at reading other people’s emotions than peers who had ongoing access to screen-based technologies.

Study after study has indicated that excessive television viewing is associated with obesity.

Dr. Andrew Przybylski’s research on 4,500 10- to 15-year-olds found that kids who spend more than three hours a day playing video games reported less satisfaction, fewer social interactions, and more emotional problems than peers who played an hour per day. (Interestingly, kids who did not play at all also reported more adjustment difficulties than peers who played a modest amount.) Most experts hold kids and technology moguls as the villains of these concerns, but as I will describe to you in the next paragraphs, I often wonder if parents are to blame for too much screen time.

The most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) added the diagnosis of Internet Gaming Disorder due to increasing concerns about the addictive nature of kids’ (and adults’) use of screen-based technologies.

An incidence rate of up to 8 percent is attributed to teens who display a preoccupation or obsession with gaming. As a clinical child psychologist, I have talked to countless parents who are confused and concerned about the impact of technology on their kids.

To add to their worries about excessive screen time at home, a growing number of their children are spending the school day engaged with technology, as well. Whether playing Minecraft, watching YouTube videos, texting friends, checking Instagram, watching Netflix, or doing schoolwork or homework, kids spend an incredible amount of time with their eyes glued to screens.

Critics have been quick to blame technology, media companies, and a host of modern socio-cultural norms for children’s excessive screen time. There is a lot of money to be made from digital media and screen time.

The five largest companies in the United States (as measured by market capitalization) are Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook, all media companies that benefit directly from increasing amounts of screen time. And kids are major consumers of screen time.

However, even the traditionally strict American Academy of Pediatrics has relaxed its recommendations to allow for us to live in a technologically-driven world, with the caveat that parents need to be more involved.

Parents are the frontline to kids’ use of technology. They are buying them smartphones at increasingly younger ages (the average age of children getting a smartphone is 10.3 years), from which a child is given direct, unadulterated access to everything that is good and bad about the Internet. Parents control access to the Internet at home and pay for the cellphone plans their kids use.

The vast majority are well aware of the addictive draw of interactive digital media because they frequently experience it themselves. Parents recognize the risks of Internet access but often feel helpless or choose to do little about these potential dangers.

Screen-based technologies are not going away and will increasingly become our primary tools for learning about and communicating with our world, but when kids spend too much time with technology, they are not spending time playing, creating, exercising, experiencing nature, and building relationships.

So are parents actually to blame, at least in part, for this screen-time problem? We protect our kids from strangers, make sure we always know their whereabouts, and spend hours watching them play sports, but do very little to engage with them where they spend the majority of their time, in front of screen-based technologies. This really is a new frontier, and many of today’s digital-age parents don’t have a model for navigating the issue of screen time.

Parents need to take responsibility for their children’s overuse of screen-based technologies if we want our kids to have a more balanced life where play, socializing, and learning are not confined to a screen. Here’s why:

Parents model too much screen time.

Thanks to that much-talked-about Common Sense Media study, we now know that most teens average 9 hours a day of screen time. While concerning, that figure starts to make sense when we place it next to the results of a more recent Common Sense Media study that found that parents consume an average of 9 hours of screen time a day themselves. While, on the one hand, we complain that our kids don’t pay attention to us, they see us when we check text messages, binge-watch shows on Netflix, and haunt social media. If you spend the majority of your free time engaged with screen-based technologies, your kids are likely to do the same.

Parents don’t know what their kids are doing.

One of the more difficult aspects of digital-age parenting is that kids often know more about technology than their parents. Our kids are masters of the newest games, apps, and social media platforms before we’ve even heard of them. Not only are children better able to adapt to and navigate the digital world, but many parents also seem to have resigned themselves to the idea that they are incapable of keeping up with technology.

In a survey conducted by the pre-school TV network Sprout, 92 percent of parents admitted that they don’t know enough about the technologies their children are using. No wonder our kids find it so easy to work around parental guidelines and controls. Parents who play video games with their kids, require connections on social media, and take the time to talk with their kids about media report more confidence in their kids’ judgment about their screen-time use.

Yet, at the same time, there are significant academic, social, and skill-building benefits to screen time. Children seem to learn better from game-based lessons and when engaged with technology in general. Despite the fears that parents continue to acknowledge in surveys, the vast majority report believing that technology is beneficial, and there are many scientific studies that support that belief.

As noted earlier, one hour of video-game play a day can actually be good for a child’s psychological adjustment. And that “hour per day” is the key: Setting limits should be about finding a balance between screen time and other activities in what I call a healthy “Play Diet.”

In the same way that we are responsible for our children’s nutrition and physical well-being, we play the key role in balancing their screen time with other activities, setting effective and respectful limits, modeling appropriate technology usage, keeping them safe online, and being actively involved in their digital lives.

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