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Just How Much Screen Time is Too Much?

Just How Much Screen Time is Too Much?

This is the first of two parts on the topic of screen time for children. Today, we considered the addictive nature of access to technology. Next week we offer tips for parents to create a strategy at home.

Those radiant screens draw us all in – from the youngest tech users with baby fingers not quite adept enough to push one key at a time, to those older folks whose eyes squint for optimal viewing.

With the ubiquity and access to technology, it can be tough to strike the goldilocks balance of screen time that’s just right for every family. The Washington Post reported a study that kids ages 8-12 consume media for about six hours a day, and once they hit the teen years that number increases by 50 percent up to nine hours day.

Addictive nature of access to technology

Consider the addictive properties of technology, and it just may help parents set more stringent usage parameters. Business Insider features Dr. Dan Siegal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, discussing the interactive elements of technology that explain why we are so hooked. Technology fuels our human desire for social connectivity and activates the reward center of the brain which releases dopamine – that feel-good neurotransmitter. That’s what keeps us going back for more and more.

Availability to technology plays a major role. If a kid or adolescent has unfettered access to a device, then self regulation becomes nearly impossible when you think about those feel-good effects of using technology.

With many homes having multiple devices, more affluent homes usually mean more devices and nearly 20 percent of households have 10 or more devices. So how do we regulate our own technology use and model appropriately for children when that’s all they’ve ever known as “digital natives?”

Develop a ‘media plan’ for your family

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently rolled out new recommendations for technology usage among children and surprisingly there’s no specific number guidelines, but instead parents are encouraged to make an informed decision of media use in their household that suits everyone’s needs. The AAP urges parents to be mindful of how screen time and media consumption could impact sleep, physical activity, eating habits and relationships. Armed with this knowledge, parents can create a plan suitable for each child.

The AAP offers a free resources to create an individualized family media plan that looks at the age of the child and encourages healthy habits like “screen-free zones” and “device curfews” within the household.

Mike Johnson, Middle School director at The Summit Country Day School, agrees with this idea that there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. A focus on time isn’t the way to equip our youth with the skills they need to embrace a healthy balance of technology.

“What I am becoming convinced of is that we are focusing a lot on how much time our students are in front of the screen. We are using the TV paradigm and talking about how much ‘screen time’ they have,” Johnson says. “I am beginning to realize that the amount of screentime may not be nearly as important as the type of screen time.”

Types of media consumption

When creating a family media plan or technology-usage contract, it is important to consider the various ways in which media is consumed. Common Sense Media breaks down technology into four categories based on the type of screen-time engagement. Like Johnson said, some types of screen time are more innocuous than others.

Common Sense Media breakdown of screen time activities:

  • Passive consumption: watching TV, reading and listening to music
  • Interactive consumption: playing games and browsing the Internet
  • Communication: video-chatting and using social media
  • ​Content creation: using devices to make digital art or music

Johnson is particularly concerned about the more interactive media usage consumption and communication. He challenges parents to think about the ramifications this has for kids when technology triggers intense emotions.

“These responses elicit a totally different physiological response than does watching TV,” Johnson adds. “Their brain’s ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered and adrenaline is flowing through their bodies. I wonder how that is impacting them.”

All this technology impacts the brain of a developing child.

By Jay Cooper

Learn More

  • Meet the expert: Meet Middle School Director Mike Johnson at Parent Preview Days Thursday, Oct. 26; Thursday, Nov. 9 or Tuesday, Jan. 30. Sign up here. 
  • Middle School Parents Only: Nationally known author and psychologist Michele Borba, Ph.D. will present a session exclusively for parents of Middle School-aged children. Hear her speak on the "Nine Essential Habits for Tweens and Teens: Tools for Constructing Good Behavior, Strong Character an Resilience in a Plugged-in, Tech-Obsessed World." Register here.
  • Parents of younger children: Summit Montessori Director Kathy Scott will discuss the effect that extended playtime on a phone, iPad or other electronic devices has on a child's brain in her talk, "Screen Time vs. Free Time," at the Early Childhood Education Symposium on Saturday, Oct. 28. Register for the symposium here.