teens and tvAlthough worries about sex, drugs, and school still top the list when I talk to parents of teenagers, the issue of screen time, video games and social media sites often have parents and teens in bitter battles. What’s a good parent to do?

According to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average American youth spends eight to ten hours a day on some form of media–often more than one at a time. The Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) was founded ten years ago as a collaborative effort of Children’s Hospital Boston, Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health to figure out just how this enormous change in the daily life of kids might be affecting them.

Michael Rich, MD, is a pediatrician whose focus is to study the effects of media on children’s health. He thinks of media the way other doctors think about nutrition, wanting to give parents research based tips on which media are empty calories versus full of nutrients. In order to do so, Rich and his team have examined more than 3400 studies on the impact of media. Not all the results are what you might expect.

For example, Rich and Bickham found that kids who watch TV with friends were often more likely to spend time also doing other kinds of activities with their peers. So quantity is not necessarily bad. On the other hand, kids who spend more time watching violent shows tended to be more isolated. The research does not indicate whether it is the chicken or the egg. In other words, do isolated kids watch more violent TV or does violence cause more isolation? No matter what, parents and therapists should be monitoring the content of kids media and encouraging social engagement of all kinds.

Media late at night can disrupt kids sleep, and too many kids (and adults) are already suffering from sleep deprivation. Neuroscientist Marcus Dworak looked at sleep patterns of boys aged 12 to 14. Researchers asked kids to alternate between watching action movies one night and playing video games the next. Although both activities led to poorer sleep quality, the video gamers consistently had more sleep disruption and were less able to remember vocabulary words memorized the night before. So a little TV is far superior to ending the night with gaming.

Researcher Jacob Vigdor found that home computers used for fun rather than for learning can actually hurt school performance. When kids are not supervised, they use technology to chat with friends or play games which adds up to more distractions from homework and education. Other negative effects associated with more screen time have been obesity, earlier alcohol use, and riskier sexual behaviors.

Given the potential harm that too much media use can do, what are some tips for parents with middle school and high school age kids?

The most important principle is to make sure your kids are safe. The minute they are surfing the Internet, they are joining a global audience. Would you let your kids hang out with anyone? Would you let them spend vast numbers of hours with people much older? Especially people you have never met? Trying to prevent them from entering this world is as futile as trying to keep kids away from drugs or alcohol. You want to teach your kids the equivalent of street smarts for the web.

Explain the dangers of putting personal information or inappropriate photos up on Facebook profiles or shared via cell phones. That information could not only come back to haunt them later in life but could ruin their reputation or get them in trouble. Texting in the car can be as dangerous as driving under the influence. Have some clear rules and consequences in place for unsafe behaviors just as you would for drug or alcohol misuse.

The second important principle is to keep communication lines open on this and other important topics. The first step may very well be to educate yourself about the specific sites and games that your kids are exploring. Talk to other parents or to twenty-something young adults to find out what is currently the rage. Find out the games they like to play and have them teach you, explaining what they enjoy. Make sure your family has some times–like at the dinner table–when no one is on hand-held devices. It’s pretty hard to talk and listen with all that competition.

The third important principle is to use this topic to teach your kids to find balance in life. As the research indicates, social media, like most things, needs to be practiced in moderation. Have a conversation about how your teen thinks he or she should be dividing time between screen time, school work, physical activity and time spent with friends and family. Keep track periodically.

Some kids get so “addicted” that they have trouble regulating their own behavior. Often kids are actually relieved when their parents set limits for them. It is easy to install software to limit computer time, monitor sites, and make sure the computer is off at a certain time until your teen is able to achieve balance. Remember, your kids will be off on their own in short order so if you try to solve this dilemma with either control or hands-off, you will be missing a window of opportunity to help teach your kids the life skills they need to thrive.


Teen watching TV photo available from Shutterstock