When Parenting Your Kids, How Much Tech is Too Much Tech?Just the Facts

If you’ve got kids or grandchildren, you know that they love technology. They’ve got televisions, gaming consoles, and laptops in their bedrooms, pads and tablets in their book-bags, iPods and smartphones in their pockets. And wherever they are, whenever they are, no matter how old they are, they are probably using one or more of these devices. In fact, one well-researched study estimates that children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend 11.5 hours per day using various forms of digital technology. Since most kids are awake only 15 or 16 hours per day, somewhere between 71 and 76 percent of the typical young child’s day is digital. And, let’s face it, this 24/7 tech-fest usually kicks in well before the study’s low-end cutoff age of 8.

Social media sites, texting, and video games appear to be the main culprits. One 2009 study published in  the scientific journal Pediatrics found that more than half of American teens logged on to a social media website more than once per day, with nearly a quarter of teens logging on 10 or more times per day. And this study was published 2009, before the recent proliferation of social media smartphone apps, which has made Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, and the like more ubiquitous than ever. As such, present-day numbers have likely increased significantly.

Also in 2009, the Pew Internet & American Life Project published a study that found three-quarters of US teens owned a cellphone, with 88 percent of them texting regularly. Boys typically sent and received 30 texts per day; girls sent and received 80 per day. Girls aged 14 to 17 typically sent at least 100 texts per day.  A more recent Pew study, published in 2012, shows the median number of daily texts among teens aged 12 to 17 has risen from 50 texts per day in 2009 to 60 texts per day in 2012, with older teens, boys, and African Americans leading the increase, though girls aged 14 to 17 remain the most avid texters, still averaging well over 100 per day. The survey also revealed that texting is now the primary mode of daily communication between teens and their friends and family, far surpassing phone calls, face-to-face interactions, and emailing.

Then we have video games, the bane of many a parent’s existence. Unsurprisingly, the United States is the largest gaming market in the world, with 183 million active gamers (people who say they play video, computer, or other online games “regularly.”) On average, these users spend 13 hours per week gaming. Furthermore, approximately 97 percent of kids (old enough to play video games but under 18) say they are gamers, and most expect to be gamers their entire lives. In today’s world, a typical young person spends 10,000 hours playing video games by age 21 – approximately 5 years of 40-hour workweeks, and more than double the amount the average college student spends earning a bachelor’s degree (4,800 hours).

Should You Set Limits?

A lot of people – professionals and parents alike – are worried about how 11.5 tech-hours per day is affecting our young people. What, they ask, are the developmental differences between today’s tech generation and older generations who grew up engaging in “live” activities like team sports, social clubs, nature walks, and IRL (in real-life) dating? Is it possible that we’re raising a generation of technological junkies who will suffer withdrawal symptoms if and when they are separated from their digital devices? Or are we merely raising a generation attuned to survival in the fast moving, multitasking, tech-to-connect universe into which they were born? As discussed at length in my recently released book, Closer Together, Further Apart, coauthored with Dr. Jennifer Schneider, we don’t at this point have the necessary clinical research to answer these questions with any sort of certainty. Of course, this lack of factual information has not prevented a wide array of speculation on the matter, including a 2013 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics titled “Children, Adolescents, and the Media.” AAP’s statement urges parents to implement the following “digital guidelines”:

  • Limit the total amount of screen-time to less than 1 to 2 hours per day.
  • Discourage screen media exposure for children less than 2 years of age.
  • Keep TV and Internet-connected devices out of children’s bedrooms.
  • Monitor what media children are using and accessing.
  • Co-view TV, movies, and videos with children and teenagers, and use this as a way of discussing important family issues.
  • Model active parenting by establishing a family home use plan for all media.
  • Establish reasonable but firm rules about cell phones, texting, Internet, and social media use.

Apparently the AAP forgot that if they’re going to make broad statements about “screen-time” they should wait until there is at least a little bit of credible research on the topic. But so far there isn’t, mostly because not enough time has elapsed since the introduction of today’s most popular digital technologies. And it seems as if maybe the folks at the AAP don’t have kids of their own, because if they did they would probably know how utterly dated and unworkable these guidelines really are. (Try unilaterally implementing a few with your own kids, and see how that goes over!)

Where Can You Turn?

Needless to say, the current lack of factually based information about the effects of digital technology on young people has left a lot of parents feeling lost, frustrated, and confused about whose advice to follow.

Every parent I talk to has a different opinion, as do my kids’ teachers and counselors. No one seems to know exactly what is healthy for them now or in the days to come. I want my kids to have all the advantages, and clearly that means they have to feel comfortable with technology, but I still worry that my ten-year-old son would rather play video games than go outside.

 – Dee, a single mother of three pre-teens

Perhaps the best advice I’ve seen on this topic comes from Lisa Guernsey in her book, Screen Time. Guernsey suggests parents think about the following:

  • Is the content loaded onto this machine age-appropriate for my child?
  • Is the amount of time my kid spends engaged with technology a large or small part of his/her total social interaction?

Guernsey also notes that parents’ attitudes toward digital technology will affect how a child feels about it. In other words, if a parent treats a tech object or experience with fear and trepidation, as something “bad” that should be minimized or avoided, the child may become either tech-secretive or tech-averse, neither of which will serve him or her well over time. After all, as child psychologists have long understood, making a desirable object or fun experience seem “bad” to a child, while also making the child feel “wrong” for showing interesting in it, typically makes the object/experience either totally taboo or more enticing and likely to be used in secret. Given this, it seems that parents who are open, inquisitive, and nonjudgmental about their child’s involvement with technology are more likely to achieve a healthy result than parents who grab the digital device out of the child’s hands while telling the child that too much of it will turn his or her brain into pea soup.

Ultimately, parents must take their own counsel in regard to their kids. If it seems to you that your child is happy and well-adjusted and that tech is healthfully integrated into his or her life, then that is probably true. On the other hand, if it seems to you that tech is controlling your child’s life and causing negative consequences (poor grades, lack of social development, lack of interest in “normal” kid activities, and the like), then you may wish to take action. In such cases your first instinct may be to take away your child’s digital devices. This DOES NOT WORK. No matter how hard you try to keep a kid offline, he or she can still access digital technology at school, the library, a friend’s house, on devices purchased and used in secret, etc.

This does not, however, mean that you can’t or shouldn’t take an active role in your child’s tech-life. The best approach, as is the case with just about any aspect of a young person’s life, is a series of open, honest, nonjudgmental discussions. In these talks you can express interest in where your kids go online, the video games they play, who they interact with, what they post, and what they watch, listen to, and read. At first, if you’re not a “talking about the issues” sort of family, these interactions can feel a bit awkward. If so, you can simply explain to your kids that you’re not attempting to spy on them or to limit what they do, you are just curious and you want to make sure they are well-informed and safe. Or, if you are worried that tech may be negatively affecting your child, you can state your fears and get your child’s input on the matter. Then, together, you can try to establish healthy limitations on usage (such as completing school assignments before video games, no digital tech during family dinners, and the like).

In these ongoing discussions, it is important to not pre-judge your child’s use of technology, especially if you are not clear about what certain technologies are and do. In fact, if you don’t understand how a certain device, game, website, or software works, you should ask your kids to explain it, preferably via a demonstration. Usually they are happy to show off their expertise, and you will nearly always gain a useful understanding of that particular technology’s appeal. (Plus, you might find uses for it in your own life.) It is also important that you understand and accept the fact that digital technology is here to stay. In short, children of all ages are using digital technology for all sorts of purposes, and there is nothing much we can do about it. So instead of fearing technology and blaming it for our children’s woes, perhaps we should work harder to communicate with them and to be more active in their lives. This, of course, means that we must embrace digital technology with them, learning to text, to follow them on social media, and perhaps even to play with them using joysticks and other game controllers.