So much internet ink has been spilled decrying the challenges of raising digital kids. And for a host of reasons, this hand-wringing is justified and reasonable. I’ll outline many of these issues below.
But… our kids are growing up in this digital environment, and frankly, it’s pretty damn awesome in spite of those challenges I’ll describe below. The need for protection is undeniable. Concerns are not just justified; they are mounting. Yet the opportunity that we have in front of us is unparalleled. Never in history has there been so much potential for our children to build and develop amazing digital solutions that can improve our world. The digital opportunities in front of us are incredible.
In the following article you’ll discover:
- What research says about kids, screens, and wellbeing - and why we have every right to be concerned
- Why the negatives are happening
- How to turn anxiety into opportunity
- Practical solutions for every parent
My articles aren’t typically this long, but be warned… this one is longer than normal. It’s a solid 15 minute read. My hope is that you’ll find it worth it though.
Part 1: What research says about kids, screens, and wellbeing
The way we use screens in our homes and in our families has been evolving for decades – since the beginnings of television. But screens today are more present, ubiquitous, and pervasive than ever before. And there’s a huge amount of hand-wringing about how kids (and parents) today interact with their multitude of devices.
This article is about whether the hand-wringing is justified, and if it is, what we can do about it.
The “screen-time” alarm was first raised a generation ago in 1999, with the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) strongly discouraging electronic media for children under the age of two. (Prior to that, it was always our mums and grandmas who warned us that we would end up with “square eyes” if we kept on staring into those “idiot boxes” in the corner!)
In the 24 years since the AAP said kids under two should not watch screens, the official advice has remained largely unchanged, with the World Health Organization (WHO) releasing its own guidelines in 2019 also discouraging the use of screen time in children under two, and no more than one hour daily for children under the age of five. For those between 5-17, the advice is to have no more than two hours of recreational screen time daily, although less is better.
Parents stopped listening to those guidelines years ago. In fact, more than 80% of Australian children are spending more time on screens than is recommended. I argue that the guidelines are mostly irrelevant, and that we should be focused less on “how much” screen-time our kids are getting, and more on “what type”. (Screens are best used for creativity and connection rather than consumption, for example. And Jocelyn Brewer tells us to be mindful, moderate, and meaningful in the way we use our screens.) I also encourage parents to ensure that screens fit into a healthy, whole, and balanced life.
There is, however, a whole lot of science that underpins these ideas, whether mine, Jocelyn’s, or those of organisations like the AAP and WHO. This is what the research says about the impact of screens on kids at various developmental stages:
Infants and toddlers
There is a booming market for educational media marketed at infants and toddlers. App developers (who have a financial interest in you downloading their product), and producers of children’s television argue that educational content can enhance learning during this key period of language acquisition and cognitive growth. However, there are no proven benefits of screen use for children under the age of 2. That is, there is zero upside (with the exception of mum getting a break and having a shower in peace… and that does count for something, right?).
The downside, however, is well understood and reported. Studies highlight cognitive, language, and motor delays associated with increased screen time for children in this age group, and while the effects are not enormous, some are equivalent to the effect of decreasing maternal education by up to 4 years. And even indirect exposure to screens can have an impact on kids’ healthy development. For example, background TV exposure may be just as harmful as staring at the screen, as even when very young children don’t pay direct attention to the TV it negatively impacts their play behaviour. It creates a distraction, reduces the quality of social-interactions, and stifles physical activity.
In short, the research says keep kids away from screens until they are at least 2. (And my preference is actually age 3.)
With pre-schoolers, the concerns around screens are mostly about what they displace. For example, the WHO guidelines around screen time are embedded within a broader set of recommendations for a healthy lifestyle, which include aiming for 3 hours of physical activity daily, not being restrained or sitting for more than an hour at a time, and aiming for 10-13 hours of quality sleep in every 24-hour period. The issue with screen time exceeding the recommended cap of 2 hours is that it is likely to displace either physical activity or quality sleep. And it also gets in the way of quality interactions and connection with others. Research has found that even background television exposure is associated with reduced sleep duration and sleep quality, and that excessive screen time is associated with increased risk of obesity and less physical activity.
As our children move into primary school, there are still concerns around the impact of excessive screen time on physical health, especially as excessive screen use is both an indicator of current risk for poor diet and low activity level and also the risk of being overweight, having poor fitness, and having raised cholesterol as an adult. However, as children gain greater autonomy in their use of devices, there is also increasing concern over the content they can access. As they progress through primary school, children are more likely to start playing video games, with resulting concerns about the association between violent video games and aggression, and by the end of primary school some children are even intentionally viewing pornography.
Two important notes here… first, we probably don’t need to be as worried about video games as many people think. They don’t seem to be particularly impactful except for the way they reduce physical activity, sleep, and social interaction (although not always). Second, we absolutely do need to worry about kids viewing pornography. On this, we can argue strongly that it does harm.
Keep the following in mind: one third of primary school aged children in Australia own a mobile phone. In the graph below, a large international survey of 28 000 young adults by Sapien Labs found that the most mentally healthy young adults were those who received a smart phone later in their teen years*. (You’ll note that lower MHQ scores mean poorer mental health, and earlier access to device ownership is associated with poorer mental health. Also note that girls are significantly more affected than boys). Given this finding, the steep rate of phone ownership among Australian primary school students is concerning.
Unsurprisingly, the concerns for younger children apply equally to teenagers – concerns around screens displacing sleep and physical activity, concerns around accessible content, and concerns around the impact of smart phone ownership on mental health. However, many of these concerns arise from correlational data. That is, there is an association between screen usage and poor sleep quality, and between phone ownership and reduced mental health, but we can’t say that screen usage or phone ownership caused these problems.
There is one aspect of screen use that is causing problems with our teens, and particularly with our teen girls: social media. As shown in the graph below, the mental health of our teens has dramatically worsened since about 2012. This is about the same time that smart phones became absolutely ubiquitous, and that 4G Internet rolled out in most major cities. These developments were vital in making social media more accessible than ever before. Since around 2012, research findings have shown that teenage girls who spend five hours daily on social media are three times more likely to experience depression than those who spend two hours or less. For more on how social media is a major cause of the mental health epidemic affecting today’s teenagers, check out After Babel on Substack (a list of articles is at the bottom of this page), particularly this article.
While this all sounds alarming, there are three important things to note.
- All of this research points to screens being harmful when used in excess. When children and teenagers manage their screen use to reasonable levels, screens aren’t really a big deal. In fact, there is even evidence that a moderate amount of screen use has a positive effect on mental health.
- Teens are just as aware of the problem as we are. In a 2018 study, teens indicated that social media was the biggest cause for the declining mental health of their generation. We don’t need to take the issue on alone.
- Screen use is not just about our kids. For example, while most parents think that it is appropriate to limit their children’s screen usage to under 2 hours daily, 66% don’t adhere to these limits themselves.
Part 2: Why is this happening?
While I’ve highlighted that a moderate amount of screen time is ok for kids, more than 80% of Australian kids aren’t keeping their screen use to anything even close to the recommended guidelines, and most adults struggle to moderate their screen time as well. What is it about screens that makes them so compelling?
Quick sidebar: There are many news reporters who are quick to label screens as addictive and teens as tech addicts. However, there is currently no diagnosis for screen addiction, and while some screen users meet the criteria for addiction, this is rare. On the other hand, a large proportion of people struggle with problematic screen use. Personally, I think that by labelling screens as addictive, we limit a person’s agency, whereas when we talk about screens as habit forming, we empower people to manage their usage.
There are numerous interacting factors that drive compulsive screen use:
Persuasive design elements
Social media companies and game developers have one thing in common. They want to keep you on your screen for as long as possible, because the longer they have your attention captured, the more money you are likely to spend. To that end, these companies hire teams of psychologists and data analysts to track everything that users do, and experiment with features to determine what keeps users the most engaged.
William Siu, a former game developer whose games have collectively generated more than one billion dollars in sales, explains that the ultimate goal is “to build habit-forming games that have players coming back every day. In other words, it takes away the decision-making. We wanted people to reach for their phones first thing in the morning and jump right into our games. ”
There are so many of these elements on social media, in games, and even on news sites. Some of them include “pull to refresh”, the “like” button, recommended viewing, autoplay, games with no clock and automatic restart, and more. These elements exist primarily to keep people’s attention.
In a 2021 study analysing 200 hours of video footage that comprised 1130 smartphone interactions, it was found that only 11% of smartphone interactions were triggered by receiving a notification. While the participants reported feeling societal pressure to respond to the notification straight away, this pressure doesn’t go away by putting a phone on silent or do not disturb. In fact, one participant reported that after switching off the notifications, “I find myself checking more regularly to see whether something’s come up.” FOMO – the fear of missing out, seems to drive people to check their phones about once every five minutes.
Basic psychological need satisfaction
Social media and video games are remarkably effective at meeting our basic psychological needs – the needs to feel related/connected, capable/competent, and in control/autonomous. They have been designed that way, because things that meet our needs keep us coming back for more.
For example, Dr Peter Gray, one of the most influential defenders of children’s play, argues that children today “are suffering from too much adult control over their lives and not enough freedom”. For many, video games are their only outlet for unsupervised play, the only area of their lives that they have full control over what they do. This is, in part, because many parents are uncomfortable letting their kids play out of the house unsupervised in the remaining time they do have after being over-scheduled in their extra-curricular activities and homework demands. Children and teens also report that video games provide an outlet for social interaction, either through the conversation that occurs through Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, or through creating common ground for real life interactions. Competence needs are also met through video games, with the ‘challenge of figuring things out’ given as a reason for playing video games by a majority of teens.
The problem in general, is that while screens meet our basic psychological needs quickly, they sometimes meet them in a shallow way. It may be a quick fix to scroll through Instagram for a few minutes when we feel lonely, but engaging in a real conversation would meet our need for connection better. Our children may feel a lot of satisfaction from mastering a certain video game, but developing competence in other skills will probably set them up better for life.
Part 3: Turning anxiety into opportunity
So should we be worried? The easy answer is yes, we should be worried. But only to the extent that we are worried enough to make some efforts to provide effective guidance to help our children. Hand wringing won’t help.
Knowing that there is an army of psychologists, app designers, and game developers trying to monetise our children’s attention (at the cost of their mental and physical health) is enough to make many parents think about banning their children from all screens starting right this minute.
This would be unwise. Preaching abstinence is not going to work. It would be like fencing the pool when you live by the ocean. Instead, we need to allow our kids to use screens, but give them the tools to use them safely.
Moreover, there is enormous opportunity for our children in spite of the negatives I’ve been at pains to point out. Let me explain.
While excessive screen time can have negative effects on the development and well-being of children and teens, there are also ways that parents can utilise screens to future-proof their kids and harness their potential benefits. Here are some positives of using screens and strategies for parents to enhance those positives:
Screens can provide access to a vast range of educational resources, including interactive learning apps, educational websites, and online courses. Parents can curate a selection of high-quality educational content that aligns with their child's interests and encourages learning in various subjects. While many false claims are made regarding the educational value of many things online, it’s absolutely possible for discerning parents to wisely guide their kids towards those educational high-value elements.
Actively engage with your child while they interact with educational content. Develop a process where you determine, together, the educational value of the content they’re exploring. Discuss the topics, ask questions, and encourage critical thinking.
Screens can support the development of various skills, such as problem-solving, creativity, digital literacy, and communication. There are apps and programs designed to enhance specific skills like coding, graphic design, or language learning.
Encourage your child to engage with interactive apps and games that promote problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Help them explore creative applications, such as digital art or music composition. Maybe your child can actually develop an app, a website for a business (their own, of course), or another project in which there is skill development opportunities. Or you might invite them to develop a TikTok page on a topic of interest to them, and see if they can execute a strategy to grow it into something significant.
Communication and Social Connection
Screens enable children and teens to stay connected with family, friends, and communities through video calls, messaging apps, and social media. This can foster social skills, emotional well-being, and provide a sense of belonging.
Encourage your child to have meaningful interactions rather than passive scrolling. Teach them about responsible online behavior, digital citizenship, and online safety.
Access to Information and Resources
Screens grant instant access to a wealth of information, which can facilitate research, exploration of diverse perspectives, and exposure to different cultures and experiences.
Encourage your child to explore topics they are curious about, guide them in discerning credible sources, and promote critical thinking when consuming online information. Encourage them to engage in discussions and share what they have learned. You might plan a holiday and ask them to develop an itinerary, taking in adventures and sights they’ve identified as interesting to them.
Screens provide platforms for creative expression, such as video editing, digital storytelling, blogging, and podcasting. These activities can enhance communication skills, creativity, and self-confidence.
Encourage your child to explore various creative outlets available on screens. Provide them with the necessary tools and resources, and recognise and appreciate their efforts and achievements. Encourage them to share their creations with others, fostering a sense of pride and accomplishment. Perhaps they could even start a podcast?
Part 4: Practical support for parents
Jumping back, at the end of the first section, I said that there were 3 important things to remember when it comes to our children’s screen use. In essence, they were:
- Screens are harmful when used in excess, but moderate use is ok.
- Teens are also aware of the impact of screen use on their mental health.
- Most parents also struggle to moderate their screen use.
These 3 points hold the key to finding ways to practically manage screens in our homes.
First – moderate and mitigate the harmful effects of screens
When children are very young, we want to reduce screen time as much as possible. Those great advantages that screens bring into our children’s lives… they’re really not likely to be accessible until your child is at least 8-10 years of age. Until then, delay, delay, delay, and minimise, minimise, minimise.
Delaying and minimising screen use is not always possible. I know many mums who, due to severe morning sickness, find that the only way they can get through their pregnancies is by turning to TV as a babysitter. If you find yourself in a situation like this, where you are allowing screen time more than you would like, you can still mitigate the effects of screens by watching with your children and engaging them in discussions (which can build language and cognitive skills), curating their screen activities (sites such as Common Sense Media and Children and Media Australia can help with this), and combining screen use with active play (Wii party, anyone?).
Second – involve your children in finding solutions
When it comes to setting limits around screen usage, it’s important that it’s something we do with our children instead of to our children so that they can learn how to regulate themselves. To do that, we can use the 3 Es of effective discipline. This will be more important as your children get older and have more freedom around screens, but starting early is a useful idea.
Explore – The first step involves trying to understand our child’s perspective. Ask questions about how, where, when, and why they want to use screens. Note: this is NOT an interrogation. It is an opportunity to discover how they feel about their screen use, what is working, and what is not. By engaging in reflective listening, we can help them feel understood, which opens them up to being willing to hear our perspective.
Explain – Second, explain your concerns. Talk to your child about how you feel about their screen use and describe any problems you are noticing. Shaming them is not the goal. Much like the first step, the goal here is to help your child understand your perspective.
Empower – Third, empower them to develop limits with you. Now that you have worked out what the issues are, you are ready to collaboratively chart a pathway forward that feels good for both of you. By coming to a solution together, your child is much more likely to work within the boundaries you have set together than they are to stay within limits you are trying to force onto them. Your kids don't get full autonomy here. But they do get to work it out for themselves with you acting as the wise guide in the relationship.
The 3 Es don’t provide a quick fix. Sometimes it won’t even be a long-lasting fix (although it’s more long-lasting than yelling, fighting, and banning). You will need to renegotiate screen boundaries reasonably regularly. That’s the nature of this issue. These conversations take time, and they need to be revisited. However, they build a solid foundation in our relationships with our children – a foundation of respect, trust, and compassion. When our children consistently feel heard and understood, they are far more likely to trust us when we feel the need to set a limit.
Yet even with world class efforts at exploring, explaining, and empowering, there will be times when our kids refuse to stick to the established limits. When that happens and the stakes are low, consider it an opportunity for them to consider the natural consequences of their decision. They didn’t want to turn off their video game to study for their test? Let them experience a low mark. They watched TikTok videos late into the night? Let them experience being tired when they need to get up early for netball or school the next day – because they do need to get up. These experiences can provide great starting points for discussion… in a few days’ time. No one likes being told “I told you so” in the heat of the moment.
Sometimes though, the stakes are higher. Maybe social media is really affecting your teenage daughter’s mental health, or your son has gotten so engrossed in his video game that he hasn’t showered for a few days. If they are refusing to consider your perspective and attempts at finding collaborative solutions, it’s ok to say no to our kids and put boundaries in place to protect them. Even then, it’s important to be kind. “I get it, you wish you could be on Instagram like all your friends. But for now, the answer is no.”
Third – examine your own screen habits
I have already mentioned that most parents don’t stick to the screen time limits that they believe their children should follow. If that’s not enough for you to reconsider your own screen habits, here are two more statistics that might persuade you:
- 36% of parents believe that they themselves spend too much time on their phones
- 51% of teens say that they sometimes find their parent distracted by their phone while trying to have a conversation with them
Too many parents are spending too much time on their phones, and our kids are noticing it! We can’t reasonably ask our kids to change their screen habits if we’re not willing to change ours.
To model healthy screen habits and create a family culture of responsible screen usage:
- Create limits around when screens can be used. Limiting screens during mealtimes is a simple change that can have profound effects, as family dinners have been shown to enhance children’s literacy skills, promote mental health and lower rates of depression, and improve physical health and nutrition. Take a cue from the Sesame Street family, and have a #DeviceFreeDinner.
- Prioritise interactions with your children over the allure of screens. If your child is in the room, look up from your phone or computer screen, smile, and ask them a question. Never make your child feel as though they need to compete with screens for your attention.
- Choose appropriate media together, paying attention to messages about gender, violence, and diversity in the content.
- Create discussions around problematic content such as stereotyping and advertising messages.
Kids today are living in a brave new world. The internet and a world full of strangers live in their pockets. Through augmented reality, they can immerse themselves more thoroughly in video games than we imagined possible a decade ago. Episodes of their favourite TV show can be played on demand, anytime, anywhere. Technology has become pervasive, practically unavoidable.
While there is plenty to be worried about, there is also plenty to be celebrated. It’s easier than ever to educate ourselves on any topic that interests us. Technology allows us to communicate with loved ones around the world at the touch of a button. Social media can be used to unite us and create movements for needed social change.
Our digital kids will be ok.
But they’ll be more ok if they integrate screen use with a whole and balanced life.
* Graphs are from work done by Jonathan Haidt and colleagues on the After Babel substack that devotes 20 000 words or more to these topics in a lengthy series of articles. I strongly recommend them and if you’d like to investigate more fully you can read them here.