The amount of time that is spent on digital devices is a common frustration for parents of kids, pre-teens and adolescents. Research shows that being online is a choice that transcends kids, adolescent and parents in record numbers, with adults leading the way in terms of internet usage. With more professional and academic tasks transitioning online, it is a trend that is unlikely to shift in the near future.
For the first time since digital device and internet usage has been studied, the number of people that evaluate their internet usage as ‘almost constantly’ (26%) outnumber Americans who are online once a day (8%), several times a week (6%) or less than several times a week (5%) combined. As online usage and social media habits are being studied by the fields of psychology and neurobiology, we are learning about the consequences of our increased use and exploring ways that can help negotiate healthier internet usage to mitigate consequences and family strife around fostering a balance for kid’s digital devices.
Some of the questions that parents commonly ask around digital device overuse are what do we know about some of the potential risks and how can I effectively manage digital device usage in my home. First, let’s look at some of the risks and rewards of digital devices. Of the known adolescent risks, the most concerning revolve around mood, sleep, social difficulties. While parents often can note irritability around the use of digital devices as well as not having access to them, the underlying anxiety and depression are particularly concerning in adolescents, young adults, and adults.
The research focused on infant and toddler risks has also demonstrated concerns with digital device usage, where the average age of digital device usage has dropped to 11 months. In addition to mood difficulties, sleep has been shown to be adversely affected both from the neurological effects of screen time usage before bed affecting serotonin levels as well as the number of digital devices that are kept and used in bed. Social difficulties have been more specifically related to social media usage and, although negative consequences from social media overuse are not specifically linked to teens, it is the age group that comprises the largest amount of time spent on social media and the most vulnerable group in terms of generating validation through social media to gain positive self-esteem.
While the inherent risks of excessive internet use fly in the face of the demands of academic and professional tasks requiring internet connectivity, how do parents find a balance to promote healthy use of digital devices? There is some evidence that some time on digital devices can promote creativity and foster communication, the amount of time recommended time rests at just over four hours, which is approximately three to five hour under the average time that preteens and adolescents spend on their devices, respectively. Let’s explore some recommendations for achieving a healthy balance for internet and digital device usage for kids……
- Mindful device use: Adolescents and adults are leading offenders when it comes to doing multiple things at once. It turns out that the human brain is not capable of effective multi-tasking and that holds true for digital devices.
Recommendation: Use one device at a time rather than shifting tasks, particularly when it comes to using multiple media and/or digital devices.
- Keep the devices out of the bedroom: The bedroom should only be used for a limited amount of activities and screen time should not be one of them. There is a boatload of evidence that sleep is more difficult to achieve and inconsistent when we use digital devices within 60 minutes of trying to fall asleep.
Recommendation: Get the devices out of the bedroom and have a cut off time for device usage that is, at the very least, 60 minutes before bedtime.
- Have “device-free” times: Nothing can be more annoying than having a lovely conversation interrupted by someone checking their phone/watch/computer and losing the ‘conversational faceoff’ with a device.
Recommendation: This is a stepchild of multitasking with interpersonal consequences. Let the text or call go until after a conversation unless it is important enough that we can tell the person we are interacting with that the conversation may be interrupted by a call or text. Consider ‘device-free’ meals, homework times and family events.
- No texting and driving: This is an actual lifesaver. Drivers are 23 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash when they are texting. If it takes 12 seconds to read and respond to a text on the highway, we have traveled well over two football fields without looking at the road.
Recommendation: There are lots of apps (and some cars) that disable texting while the car is moving. Teens are at the highest risk of texting and driving deaths and accidents, so let’s help them focus on driving by eliminating distractions. Also, remember that teens watch their parents text and drive, so set a good example and help achieve highway safety for everyone!
- Have set times for non-academic media: As our children become preteens and progress to adolescents, we should expect increased use of texting and social media. Having set times and amounts of digital consumption can help both the adolescent and parent achieve some healthy balance.
Recommendation: By knowing what the recommended amounts of digital device usage should be can take the battles out of statements like “you are using your phone too much” and create expectations that are both beneficial for responsible usage by kids and non-nagging by parents!
- Open communication and contracting for digital device usage: Nothing helps parents and their kids like effective contingencies. They help create expectations when effect is low and achieve planning and communication before difficulties occur. Having expectations around what social media is acceptable, amount of time that devices can be used, negotiating find my phone apps and healthy, appropriate texting leads to a safe, balanced digital plan.
Recommendation: There are a lot of sites that have digital device plans that can be helpful for parents looking for open, safe communication and digital planning. It is also important that all rule enforcers are on board with the accepted plan. For ideas around digital plans and communication, check out Family Media Planning and Smart Social Guidelines for planning and ideas.