Parents have a lot to worry about.

It’s an inherent part of the job. Are our kids are healthy, eating well, making friends, getting enough quality time with us, learning… The list goes on, and it can feels like we’re bombarded with new things to worry about all the time.

A huge concern for many parents is the time kids spend with screens on the various devices that are part of daily life for this generation of digital natives. Naturally, we’d like our kids to be tech-savvy and prepared for the world, but at the same time, how much is too much?

As entrepreneurs, tech tends to be ubiquitous in our households – many of us have built companies around it! So how do we help our kids maximize the benefits of technology and avoid the negatives?

Get our healthy “ground rules” for kids and social media here

How much screen time is healthy?

It’s a common site among kids, heads down, lost in a digital world on a screen. Let’s be honest, sometimes an iPad is a lifesaver when we need the kiddo to stay occupied so that we can finish an important call or finalize a marketing email. Screens can be a win for both kids and parents if used appropriately. It’s important for kids to know how to operate the technology and to develop healthy tech habits from an early age.

American Psychological Association (APA) researchers surveyed parents and found that 94% take at least one action to manage their child’s technology usage. Most parents are working hard to stay on top of tech usage and are looking for better ways to manage technology with their kids. The current, official recommendation from the APA was revised in 2016 to the following:

  • For children under 18 months, avoid screen-based media except video chatting.
  • For children 18 months to 24 months, parents should choose high-quality programming and watch with their children.
  • For children 2 to 5, limit screen time to one hour per day of high-quality programming.
  • For children 6 and up, establish consistent limits on the time spent using media and the types of media.

These guidelines still leave a couple of glaring questions, for example, what is considered to be “high-quality programming?” What is healthy in terms of “consistent limits” for those kids aged 6 and up?

A report from Common Sense Media, examining screen usage in kids aged 0 – 8 found that this age group is averaging 2 hours and 19 minutes per day of screen time, with 72% of this time spent on TV and video viewing. Another report from the same organization found that this jumps to 4.5 hours per day for 8 – 12 year-olds, while on average, teens are spending up to 9 hours per day on screen media. Those would seem like some fairly long hours for “consistent limits”…

The effect of screens on kids’ brains

In young children, studies have connected delayed cognitive development with extended exposure to electronic media. Kids with extended exposure to screens may experience difficulty with communicating, language development, focusing and developing a sense for other people’s feelings or emotions. Children who are in the particularly critical birth – 3 age group need certain sensory stimulation from their surroundings to develop normally, and these stimuli aren’t delivered via a tablet screen.

There is also concern that too much screen time, particularly on devices such as smartphones or tablets, can train kids to expect immediate gratification from actions. If I can swipe to get what I want on-screen, why is everything else so slow? Consider this from Psychology Today:

“When every finger swipe brings about a response of colors and shapes and sounds, a child’s brain responds gleefully with the neurotransmitter dopamine, the key component in our reward system that is associated with feelings of pleasure. Dopamine hits in the brain can feel almost addictive, and when a child gets too used to an immediate stimuli response, he will learn to always prefer smartphone-style interaction—that is, immediate gratification and response—over real-world connection.”

As for our older kids, screen addiction and flow-on effects such as lack of sleep, lack of exercise and poor social interaction are among the multitude of concerns. Jean Twenge, a Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University describes “iGen”, those born between 1995 and 2012, for whom smartphones have been ever-present during their formative years:

“The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.”

Mental health is a significant concern, with more of this generation reporting anxiety, unhappiness, symptoms of depression and thoughts of suicide than previous generations. They also spend more time at home and less time socializing in-person with their friends. Professor Twenge links this to smartphone use and spending so much of their social life on screens:

“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

So with these concerns in mind, we’re back to those “consistent limits”; just how much time should we be allowing our older kids to spend on screens? There isn’t really a set amount that is agreed upon by researchers, but the overall advice is to make a family media plan, taking healthy practices such as family time and exercise into account. This will probably look different for any given family – do you count homework time on the laptop as part of their screen time? Do you have set hours during which electronic devices must be “turned in?” It’s about balancing media with other healthy behaviors.

Teach kids to balance media use with other healthy behaviors Click To Tweet

High quality programming

The definition “high quality programming” mentioned for younger children in particular can be inferred from the APA’s press release when they introduced their new guidelines. They stated:

“Evaluations of apps from Sesame Workshop and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) have also shown efficacy in teaching literacy skills to preschoolers. Unfortunately most [other] apps parents find under the ‘educational’ category in app stores have no such evidence of efficacy, target only rote academic skills, are not based on established curricula, and use little or no input from developmental specialists or educators.”

Look for programming or apps that have been developed with established curricula in mind, and with input from educators and developmental specialists. Programs such as Sesame Street or apps such as ABC Mouse fall under this criteria.

Setting limits with your kids

Don’t throw those tablets out just yet! With sensible use, tablets and smartphones can be great at assisting kids with coordination, language skills and other learning applications. Let’s also not forget the power of technology for helping us to stay connected – tools such as Skype have been a game-changer for families and friends who are spread over a distance. The key is being able to set and stick to those limits, which is what many parents struggle with.

Here are some thoughts for setting those limits:

Focus on healthy habits

Rather than reacting strongly against the technology, or treating it like something to fear, focus on teaching your kids healthy habits overall, with the inclusion of technology. Eating, sleeping, exercise and appropriate social interaction should all come into the equation.

You might set some limits to encourage good habits such as:

  • Meal times spent together at the table as a family, with no devices allowed.
  • Having set limits for daily screen time.
  • Balance screen time with other outside time, physical exercise, art, reading, etc.
  • Requiring all electronic devices to be out of bedrooms and charging at an agreed point at nighttime.
  • Having set “family time” where you do non-screen activities together (even just a simple evening walk after dinner).

An important (and challenging!) part of this is that as parents, we need to be able to model healthy habits for our kids. We might need to spend a lot of time on devices during the course of our work, but what behaviors are we modeling outside of work?

There are many adults who struggle with unplugging from technology too, to the point where places like daycares and schools are instituting “no mobile phone” zones. This is in an effort to focus attention during those hectic dropoff and pickup times. Kids are great modelers of adult behavior, and also quick to point out when the rules aren’t observed by the adults in their lives!

Teach kids about technology

Even very young kids can understand concepts such as “I like to eat ice cream, however it’s not healthy to eat it all the time.” The same can be said for electronic devices; a young child can understand things like “the tablet is only for sometimes.”

Teach kids what healthy use of technology looks like. This includes things like discussing the benefits and the potential dangers. All kids should be taught to protect personal information, and encouraged to come to an adult if they’re unsure of a situation online. This has to be age-appropriate of course – older kids will have a better understanding of concepts such as online predators and social media conduct.

Monitor social media usage

Wall Street Journal published an interesting article, delving into how tech experts monitor their teens’ use of social media. Famously, people in the industry such as the late Steve Jobs, have limited their kids access to the very devices that are making them money and often try to keep them away from social media as much as possible.

Of course, issues with teens and social media have been well-documented, with researchers warning of things like cyber bullying, depression, sexting and exposure to inappropriate content. With that being said, social media can also have positive impacts such as staying connected and providing a place for teens to share their interests with other, like minded people. A particularly shy kid might find social media a nice, non-threatening way to connect with others.

Every parent has their own strategies, such as using parental settings, or perhaps forbidding social media use altogether. The approach that you take is based on who your kid is and how able they are regular their own behavior. Optimally the goal is to support kids in their ability to make good decisions for themselves.  Steven Aldrich, Chief Product Officer at GoDaddy shuns parental controls for his 16-year-old, instead opting to coach him through decision-making. Aldrich says:

“No amount of monitoring is going to teach responsibility or judgment. The kids have to learn to live in a world where that’s the reality.”

Aldrich and his wife work to create an environment where their son has the chance to learn judgment, by participating in setting limits and creating boundaries for himself. Of course a key part of this is that as parents, they are paying attention to what their son is being exposed to and are ready to coach when needed. It is telling that their son now says he has learnt to consider his image, both at present and in the future, before he posts anything on social media.

Of course, using some kind of parental controls, or even forbidding social media use altogether is fine if that’s what works for setting boundaries in your household. The important thing is to be thoughtful and intentional in how your coach your kids to have a healthy relationship with screens. Have a family media plan and stick to it as closely as possible.

Get our tips for healthy social media usage here

Final thoughts

Raising tech healthy kids can be a fraught topic for parents. We get bombarded with so much advice (or opinions masked as advice), that it can be difficult to know what doing the “right” thing is.

Fortunately, guidelines from organizations like the American Psychological Association or the American Academy of Pediatrics can be helpful as you develop your own policy on kids and technology. Like all of parenting, the goal is to teach responsible, healthy behaviors from early on, monitor what your kids are  exposed to, and set reasonable limits.

We can always expect push-back from kids, especially as they get older, but do your research and know the pros and cons. It is possible for kids to enjoy the benefits of technology without compromising their safety or emotional well-being.