How Much Screen Time is too much for our Children and Teens?

Between watching television and videos, Twittering, surfing the Internet, texting and playing computer or video games, it seems that our kids are spending more of their time than ever looking at some sort of screen, which begs the question — How much screen time is too much?  As a psychologist, of course I’ve always been witness to the extreme cases.  However, over the past few years, screen time concerns rank up there for why kids and teens are coming to therapy.  This Summer I worked with several teenager boys who were spending the majority of their free time gaming in isolation with limited, and for some, no peer related social contact.  I also see several teenagers who have great difficulty managing their texting time.  More and more elementary aged children I work with can’t seem to get enough of their handheld gaming devices – DS, Gameboy, PSP, etc.

Research and common sense tell us that as the amount of time spent watching television and playing video games goes up, the amount of time devoted not only to homework and study, but other important aspects of development such as social skills and physical activities decreases.  Moreover, there are studies that indicate it is not only the opportunity cost of lost time that could have been better spent on other activities that we should be concerned with, but that too much television during key developmental years is linked to subsequent problems later in life.  Although most studies have focused on the impact of violence and sex and the influence of commercials, research now suggests that the amount of time children spend in front of the screen is an important predictor of cognitive, behavioral, and physical outcomes in children, including academic performance, bullying, attentional deficits and obesity.  The impact of gaming has been so tremendous on our children and teens in the research that the Fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) will reportedly have “Video Game Addiction” as a formal disorder when it’s published in 2012.

The American Academy of Pediatrics currently holds the position that children two years and younger should watch NO television and should have NO screen time.  Children three years and older should, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, have very limited screen exposure.  The Academy’s position is supported by the research in this area, and this has been their position for parents for years now, yet we as parents do not appear to be listening.  So many parents I work with want to believe in the Baby Einstein series, for example, even when the studies show no benefits in cognitive development for children who watch that show.  In contrast, some of the research on the Baby Einstein series actually reveals a delay in language development for toddlers who watch the show.  So why is Baby Einstein, Sponge Bob Square Pants, Disney, etc., winning out over the scientifically proven position of American Academy of Pediatrics?  I think it comes down to time management and the mere fact that most of us are living very busy lives.  Screens are wonderful distractions for our toddlers, especially at those times when we as parents have only two hands and way too much to manage.  Just remember, while TV as babysitter may seem like a good idea for you and your little one at the time, there may be consequences later.

Psychologist, Kenneth Gergen, a senior research professor at Swarthmore College, coined the terms “digital autism” and “absent yet present” to explain how technology is muting the quality of our social lives and our capacity to engage fully — not just for our kids and teens but also for us as adults.  Gergen points out that you could be physically present at a dinner date but mentally absent as you are texting away on your Blackberry underneath the tablecloth.  I had the most curious “absent yet present” moment the other day with a father and his son, in which the father expressed great frustration in his son’s “X-Box 360 addiction” all the while clicking away on his Blackberry during the session.  And we’ve all viewed in awe the teenager’s “absent yet present” ability to text while doing just about anything within a given moment.

I agree with Gergen that there are fewer and fewer moments to be fully present and that technology is pushing us all as a society toward a faster pace.  Screens are everywhere now – the back of our car, plane and taxi cab seats; they’re in waiting rooms and on our phones.  For our children and teens, the lure of the screen is always there, which is a problem when screen time interferes with what’s really important, as it sometimes can.  So what’s the solution?  In my opinion, It’s really about finding that balance as parents in our screen time use for our children.  Technology, if used in moderation, can and should inform and complement our children’s lives.  Gaming can assist in our children’s hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, spatial relations, and many games can be educational.  Films and TV shows can be social and can serve as a tool to provide dialogue and greater meaning to an idea or moment as a family.

Here are a few tips to help you and your child/teen kick off the school year:

–         Have a “getting back into a routine talk” with your child and teen.  The talk should be positive and should focus on areas in which you as parents feel a need to reintroduce expectations and structure as our children and teens get back into the school year.

–         There should be no TV in your child or teen’s room.  With an average of 4 TV’s per household these days, your child or teen may already have a television in their room.  If that’s the case, closely monitor their use, as removing the TV will seem like undeserved punishment.  But f your child or teen does not have a TV or gaming system in their bedroom, best to keep it that way.

–         There should be no TV during meals.  An alarming number of families eat their meals in front of the television, restricting the opportunity for family conversation.  Exceptions can be made for special occasions.

–         Pre-plan all television shows and tape programs when academic or other commitments are pressing.  This reinforces the message that we work before we play and good work brings about a well earned reward (good life lessons to learn in childhood).  Also, when your child or teen is watching a preplanned show of their choosing and of your approval, they are not aimlessly flipping through channels, but are using their allotted TV time to watch quality programs.

–         Make screen time social.  Screen time can compliment our time together as a family with a movie night, or with playing a video game together.

–         Keep track of your child and teens screen time and stick to your agreed upon limits.  Additionally, we as parents shouldn’t forget that what we model to our children and teens has a powerful reinforcing impact on their learning and behavior.  As parents, we may want to reassess our own screen time management in leading by example.

Dr. Michael Oberschneider

Founder and Director

Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services