In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published a technical report entitled Children and Adolescents and Digital Media.[i] In this report they write: “Over the past decade, the use of digital media, including interactive and social media, has grown, and research evidence suggests that these newer media offer both benefits and risks to the health of children and teenagers.”

Identified benefits include:

  • Early learning
  • Exposure to new ideas and knowledge
  • Increased opportunities for social contact and support
  • New opportunities to access health promotion messages and information

Identified risks include:

  • Negative effects on sleep, attention, and learning
  • Higher incidence of obesity and depression
  • Exposure to inaccurate, inappropriate, or unsafe content and contacts
  • Compromised privacy and confidentiality

This listing of benefits and risks is not exactly groundbreaking. In fact, we discussed almost all of these items in our 2014 book, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships.[ii] The AAP report does, however, provide an excellent summary of the most up-to-date statistics. For instance, in 1970 children began to regularly watch TV at 4 years of age, while today kids regularly interact with digital devices at 4 months of age. Moreover, a 2015 study found that 96.6% of children under the age of 4 had used a mobile device, and 75% actually had a device of their own.[iii] The same study found that in the United States 92.2% of 1-year-olds had used a digital device at least once, and most 2-year-olds were using digital devices on a daily basis. Notably, this study looked at lower-income families, where digital devices are thought to be less available/accessible, so the overall numbers might actually be higher.

Older kids, especially teens, are generally regarded as the biggest consumers/users of digital technology, and research supports this idea. For example, a 2015 study found that 24% of adolescents describe themselves as “constantly connected to the Internet.”[iv] This same study found that social media sites are the most popular venue with this age group, with most kids using multiple sites and maintaining a social media portfolio, with 71% using Facebook, 52% using Instagram, 41% using Snapchat, 33% using Twitter, 33% using Google+, 24% using Vine, 14% using Tumblr, and 11% using other social media sites. Another study, this one conducted in 2016, found that 50% of adolescents say they “feel addicted” to their digital devices.[v]

The AAP states that adolescents use digital technology as a primary venue for socialization and communication. Among adolescents, texting (including an entire language of emojis), messaging apps (like Kik and WhatsApp), and video chat (Skype, FaceTime, and the like) have surpassed both in-person and traditional telephone (voice only) contact as modes of communication and conversation. Moreover, young people tend to engage in these various forms digital communication while simultaneously gaming, watching TV, conversing in person, etc. In fact, one study of older adolescents found that they were multitasking approximately half of the time they were online.[vi]

To anyone with kids, these assertions will not be surprising. They may, however, be alarming. In the past, the AAP has certainly expressed concern. For instance, in 2013 the organization recommended no screen time for children under two years of age, and no more than two hours of screen time per day for older kids.[vii] In Closer Together, Further Apart we suggested that these guidelines were based less on research and more on negative conjecture by adult clinicians and educators whose views were clouded by the lens of their own time, place, generation, and cultural experience. We noted, “This type of retrospective analysis, even when well intentioned, can produce concerns based primarily on fear of the unknown, fear of change, and the very human belief that ‘the way we did it (whatever it may be) is the best way to do it.’”[viii]

Taking a more accepting view of technology and the ways in which it is used by 21st century young people, we noted that behavioral science has not yet provided enough clinical research to proffer broad-based, factual conclusions about how digital technology is affecting our children.[ix] Nevertheless, parents worry. At the same time, their kids are screaming for technology. They want it like they want candy. So parents often find themselves in conflict—excited by the potential of digital devices, yet wary of the potential downside.

Closer Together, Further Apart quotes an article by Hanna Rosin, published in The Atlantic:

On the one hand, parents want their children to swim expertly in the digital stream that they will have to navigate all their lives; on the other hand, they fear that too much digital media, too early, will sink them. Parents end up treating tablets like precision surgical instruments, gadgets that might perform miracles for their child’s IQ and help him win some nifty robotics competition—but only if they are used just so. Otherwise, their child could end up one of those sad, pale creatures who can’t make eye contact and has an avatar for a girlfriend.[x]

With its recent technical report the AAP appears to have softened its stance on screen time for young people, coming into line with analysis we provided in our book by accepting the idea that not all kids and not all families are the same, and the organization’s previous blanket recommendations regarding screen time may not reflect a feasible reality. They write:

The effects of media use…are multifactorial and depend on the type of media, the type of use, the amount and extent of use, and the characteristics of the individual child or adolescent using the media. [Emphasis added.] Children today are growing up in an era of highly personalized media use experiences; therefore, parents should be encouraged to develop personalized Family Media Use Plans…that attend to each child’s age, health, temperament, and developmental stage, and ensure that each child can practice and benefit from the essentials for healthy growth and development.[xi] [An outline of the AAP’s suggested Family Media Use Plan can be found at www.healthychildren.org/MediaUsePlan.]

As psychotherapeutic and medical clinicians, we are happy to see the AAP’s new stance, which encourages each family to set its own limits while keeping the emotional and physical health of their kids in mind. All children are different, all parents are different, and all social settings are different. As such, overarching guidelines given in the past, such as “no screen time for children under two” and “no more than two hours of screen time per day for teens and adolescents,” are not (and never were) useful. Sure, these restrictions might work in some households. In most homes, however, they make little to no sense.

So, are today’s children using digital technology? Yes. Are they using it a lot? Yes. Is it affecting the ways in which they learn, play, communicate, and relate? Most definitely. Should we be deeply worried about this? The AAP, despite its revised stance, seems at least moderately fearful about certain risks. And we actually agree with that. Not every aspect of digital technology is good for our children. That said, digital interactions are here to stay and there is nothing we can do to stop that. So instead of fighting reality, we might want to just accept it, recognizing that it is far better to be prepared and have a well-thought-out plan than to just avoid the issue.

The simple truth is that when it comes to the use of digital technology, parents who can be open and inquisitive about their child’s involvement while also setting clear and understandable (to the child) boundaries around the use of digital devices are more likely to achieve a healthy result than parents who grab the device out of a kid’s hands while telling the child it will turn his or her brain into mush. To this end, it is a good idea for parents to have regular conversations with their children about household limits on technology (such as no tech at the dinner table, turning all devices off an hour before bedtime and leaving them off all night, etc.) and why these limits are important. As part of this ongoing conversation, parents should ask their kids for input, and listen to and seriously consider their opinions. Remember, if kids contribute to the boundaries their parents set, they’re much more likely to follow them. And when they don’t get a say, they’re much more likely to resent and secretly circumvent these limitations.

[i] Chassiakos, Y. L. R., Radesky, J., Christakis, D., Moreno, M. A., & Cross, C. (2016). Children and Adolescents and Digital Media. Pediatrics 138 (5):e20162593.

[ii] Weiss, R., & Schneider, J. P. (2014). Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships. Gentle Path Press.

[iii] Kabali, H. K., Irigoyen, M. M., Nunez-Davis, R., Budacki, J. G., Mohanty, S. H., Leister, K. P., & Bonner, R. L. (2015). Exposure and use of mobile media devices by young children. Pediatrics, peds-2015.

[iv] Lenhart, A. (2015). Teens, social media & technology overview 2015. Pew Research Center, 9.

[v] Felt, L. J., & Robb, M. B. (2016). Technology Addiction: Concern, Controversy, and Finding a Balance. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media; 2016.

[vi] Moreno, M. A., Jelenchick, L., Koff, R., Eikoff, J., Diermyer, C., & Christakis, D. A. (2012). Internet use and multitasking among older adolescents: An experience sampling approach. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(4), 1097-1102.

[vii] Strasburger, V. C., Hogan, M. J., Mulligan, D. A., Ameenuddin, N., Christakis, D. A., Cross, C., … & Moreno, M. A. (2013). Children, adolescents, and the media. Pediatrics, 132(5), 958-961.

[viii] Weiss, R., & Schneider, J. P., p. 63.

[ix] Weiss, R., & Schneider, J. P., p. 65.

[x] Rosin, Hanna. The touch-screen generation. The Atlantic 20 (2013).

[xi] Chassiakos, Y. L. R., Radesky, J., Christakis, D., Moreno, M. A., & Cross, C. (2016). Children and Adolescents and Digital Media. Pediatrics. 138 (5):e20162593.