Well-Being//

How Too Much Screen Time Hurts Kids and 5 Things Parents Can Do About It

Experts break down exactly how to curb the negative effects of too much tech on kids.

Photo Credit: Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images

Imagine dropping our modern gadgets into the hit Netflix series Stranger Things.

That’s the challenge psychologist W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D., co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, poses to us in order to understand how smartphones, tablets, and social media platforms have impacted millennials and Gen Z.

Stranger Things takes place in the 80s and shows kids seeking out face-to-face interactions with peers, resorting to Walkie Talkies when they can’t be together, eating at the dinner table with their families, riding bikes to each other’s houses (even late at night!), creating secret societies, and partaking in real and imagined adventures.

In contrast, today’s youth seem to have retreated from the actual world in favor of a virtual one.

Last year, the Pew Research Center found that 95 percent of teens (ages 13 to 17) have access to smartphones, and 45 percent report being online “almost constantly.”

From 2006 to 2016, digital media consumption (time spent online, texting, and on social media) more than doubled for 12th graders, totalling an average of 6 hours per day in 2016. Contrast that with a Kaiser Foundation report finding that teens averaged 7:29 hours of total media exposure (watching movies, reading magazines, playing on computers, etc.) in 1999.

Twenty years ago was an entirely different world, says Nick Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. The Internet was still new to people, few homes boasted broadband, and going online usually meant powering up your desktop computer. “Your computer was likely stationary and you had to make an effort to use it. Everything was slower,” Carr says, marveling at the many electronics people once used to connect and consume media — televisions, DVD and CD players, cameras, actual telephones and voice message recorders. “What’s happened since then is everything’s been compressed into a phone that does everything for you and is with you all the time and is always connected,” creating what he calls “compulsive users of technology.”

Researchers like Jean Twenge, Ph.D., a psychology professor at San Diego State University and the author of iGen: Why Today’s Super Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us, have been sounding the alarm on the harmful impact unbridled use of tech has on digital natives: Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z (born after 1997). As Thrive Global reported in an ongoing series, Thrive on Campus, young people today are suffering from the highest rates of anxiety and depression ever, including more self-harm and suicides among girls, and are the loneliest among us. Consequently, they’re plagued with deep insecurities and a lack of resilience.

Some, like Twenge and Richard Freed, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist and author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age, say unchecked exposure to screens is the root of the problem. “Over the past 20 years, especially the last decade, the push has been to move kids towards interactive technologies with the belief that this is somehow better than TV, which some label ‘passive’ electronic use,” Freed says. But, he believes, the interactive component actually makes it worse. “Too many of today’s kids spend their lives ‘interacting’ with smartphones, social media, and video games at the expense of engaging with their family and schoolwork.” That’s turned many of them into “absent presences,” sociologist Julie M. Albright, Ph.D., argues in her forthcoming book, Left to Their Own Devices: How Digital Natives Are Reshaping the American Dream. She says technology has untethered kids from the grounding and stabilizing effects of real life sociality and physicality.

With in-person socialization dwindling, our “internal locus of control” (the belief and confidence in our own efficacy) is being replaced by an “external locus of control” (where outside factors like Likes or comments on posts control our sense of adequacy), says Lisa Strohman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Unplug: Raising Kids in a Technology Addicted World. The founder of Digital Citizen Academy, which aims to help kids and parents healthily manage tech use, Strohman says, “It’s so damaging to these kids. They’re insecure, anxious and tentative, and they don’t know how to socialize anymore. It looks as if we’re shifting from a need for extroverted social connection into this introverted, independent, siloed world.”

Thrive Global tapped experts well-versed in the negative fallout from too much screen time to help you take the toxicities out of tech use. Put these strategies into action:

Make IRL a priority

Strohman, whose children are 10 and 11, doesn’t allow violent video games — “The research is very clear on how it negatively impacts brains,” she says. But she will allow them to play virtual sports, if they take up an actual one. “Real sports before fake sports. You have to play an actual sport before you can play a fake one,” she says of her policy, noting that her son plays basketball and her daughter plays soccer. Teach kids moderation and the importance of balancing their virtual and actual lives, she advises. You might say no screens on the weekend, encouraging them to make plans with friends, ride their bikes or go to a park.

Educate your kids

Set screen time limits, but explain why. Strohman’s children, for example, are well aware of the damaging impact of unchecked gaming: “They know that video games are programmed by psychologists and behaviorists to tap into the dopamine reward center in our brains to keep us hooked,” she says. It’s a parent’s job, she emphasizes, to empower kids with knowledge so they’re able to make responsible decisions for themselves.

As a lawyer, Strohman understands the legalese in user generated content agreements for social media platforms and helps her clients (parents included!) digest the legal jargon so they understand the full repercussions of our online lives. “These companies can redistribute our content, sell it, modify it, and ‘brand’ around anything we post. I teach clients to use technology as a tool and not let it use us as a tool,” she says.

Let them be bored and encourage conversation

Allow your kids to be bored enough to fire up their imaginations, Sherry Turkle, Ph.D., a professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at M.I.T. and the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, tells Thrive Global. “The capacity to be bored is so important because it is tied to the capacity to look within to an enlivened and enlivening self.” Boredom also inspires kids to investigate and develop other interests, Carr adds. A study last year, in fact, showed that boredom can lead to creativity and increased productivity. Implementing this tip is tricky, but one hard and fast rule you can enforce, says Strohman, is a policy of no screen time in the bedroom. That will encourage kids to indulge other forms of entertainment, like reading a book, writing, drawing, or playing a board game. Drives in the car offer another opportunity for them to embrace the power of boredom. Turn off their phones and let them listen to the radio, as their minds relax and wander, or engage them in a meaningful conversation.

Turkle, whose latest book is Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, wants us to stop compulsively texting, tweeting and posting, and get talking. “In conversations people get to know each other and themselves,” she says. And she points out, those “long silences, hesitations, and stutters” that often accompany conversation are pregnant with intellectual possibilities and paths to rich discoveries.

Set a good example

You can’t expect your kids to practice healthy phone habits if you’re constantly reaching for yours. When Strohman’s daughter was 8, she recalls, she answered a call during a drive and her daughter asked, “Mommy, is that call more important than we are?”

“It’s so important to model for them because they’re living, breathing little sponges that are watching everything that we do,” she stresses. To that end, Strohman limits phone use in the car with kids in tow, doesn’t allow devices at the dinner table, and incorporates a “No Tech Tuesdays” rule, where the family plays board games like Clue and Monopoly. “It gives undivided attention to the family unit,” she says.

Coordinate with other parents

Carr says you can’t successfully implement tech rules and moderation in a vacuum. “Coordinate with other parents, teachers, school officials to figure out how, as a community, you can reduce kids’ dependence on technology,” he says. If your kid has restrictions and their peers don’t, it’s going to be a much harder hill to climb.

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