Health Professional News

Navigating screen time with kids and teens

It’s noteworthy but not surprising: during the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, media use by tweens and teens (ages 8 to 18) grew faster than it did during the previous four years. Remote school, cancelled in-person activities and the emergence of new variants forced families indoors and screens became a learning tool, entertainment source and virtual link to the world. 

On average, kids ages 8 to 12 spend four to six hours per day on screens and teenagers spend up to nine hours per day. This includes watching television and online videos, playing video games and using social media, some of which are done simultaneously (e.g., scrolling social media while watching television), accounting for two hours of screen time in a single hour of the day. A 2020 report revealed nearly half of kids ages 2 to 4 and more than two-thirds of kids ages 5 to 8 have their own tablet or smartphone.

With the prevalence of screens only increasing, and the conversations about the benefits and detriments of screens and media use by kids and teens becoming more nuanced and sometimes conflicted, parents and caregivers are often left to navigate screen time rules by themselves. In the Talking Pediatrics episode, “The Screen Time Dilemma: Understanding Impact on Little Brains and Avoiding Big Battles with Older Kids,” host Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd talks to Dr. Sarah Jerstad, clinical director of psychological services at Children’s Minnesota, about screen time recommendations.

Screens are not the enemy

Some parents and child development professionals have concerns about the amount of time kids are spending with screens, while others think that time alone is not a relevant metric for determining how much is too much.  

“Screens are not the enemy,” said Jerstad. “There are a lot of good and positive things that can come from [them]. There are many great educational programs or learning programs and opportunities for kids.”

Experts largely agree that for kids ages 5 and older, screens can be a great place to explore, provoke some curiosity and develop independent skills. Some research on kids and video gaming show activity in the brain that’s similar to problem solving skills used in academics and other learning. Some tweens and teens benefit from the social interactions with friends that screen time provides, which was especially important during the pandemic.

The pitfalls of screen time

Many of the downsides to screen time for kids (and adults) are well-known: interference with other activities, particularly physical activity and outdoor time, exposure to content that is too mature and disruption of quality sleep.  

Experts also warn about the link between technology and declines in youth mental health. After years of a slow but steady increase in social media activity, tweens today use it 17 percent more than 2019. Some studies suggest that girls seem to be particularly negatively affected by social media. The more time they spend on Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and TikTok, among others, the more they will probably experience depression, low self-esteem, poor body image, worse sleep and other mental health problems. 

It’s also important to watch for screen addiction and impulse control. Most teens have an underdeveloped frontal cortex so they’re less able to regulate their impulses without first considering consequences. This can cause problems with content that is shared with others.

Screen addiction can be tricky to detect and harder to address. If a young person is exhibiting anxiety, depression, anger or aggression when they don’t have access to their screen, it’s probably a red flag that some adjustments need to be made. However, for many families it’s not practical to eliminate screens altogether, so the child’s pediatrician could be helpful to identify modifications or additional resources. 

Balance and supervision are key

Two important factors to consider regarding screen time for any age kids are: adult supervision and the other developmentally appropriate activities that are being displaced. “If we’re not going to the park [or] getting together with our friend down the street because we’re watching TV, if we’re not having time to just sit and be bored and use our imaginations because we’re on an iPad, that’s where we need to be cautious,” said Goepferd.

Kids under the age of 3 learn through interaction – with adults, their environment, toys and other kids. “When you look at a child and their eyes are faced at that screen, they do look engaged, but up until a year to 18 months, they’re really not learning or processing that information,” said Jerstad. “It’s entertaining to them because their eyes are drawn to it. [But] if a child is put in front of a screen in a way that’s passive that brain development isn’t going to happen in the way that it’s meant to.” Jerstad said there is an opportunity for live interaction if parents sit down with their child and watch a program together. 

The type and amount of recommended adult supervision largely depends on the child’s age. While parent involvement for younger kids is mostly centered on interaction, for kids ages 5 to 12, it’s important to monitor their screen activity because it’s not hard to arrive at websites with content they don’t understand, is scary or above their developmental level.  

Tween and teens are developing their independence and adults supervising their screen usage should respect that. Jerstad said, “If you have a kid who’s a tween or a younger teen, I think it’s okay [to check text messages and websites]. But you should tell your child, ‘I’m going to be checking in periodically, and here’s what I’m going to be looking for. If you have anything that you’re worried about, just bring it to me.’ When they’re older teens, I don’t encourage that. Instead, I encourage open dialogue.” 

Listen to the podcast or read the transcript: The Screen Time Dilemma: Understanding Impact on Little Brains and Avoiding Big Battles with Older Kids.” 

Mai Songsawatwong