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  • Dr. Amber Ufford

Balancing the Risks and Benefits of Screen Time for Children and Teens

In today's digital age, it's nearly impossible to escape the glow of screens. As parents, we find ourselves walking a delicate tightrope between embracing technology's benefits and safeguarding our children from its potential harms. The topic of screen time is a hot button issue, often leaving us questioning if we're making the right choices for our kids. This is especially true now, as we begin to better understand the impact that devices and social media can have on children's developing brains and their social and emotional well-being. However, there are certainly some benefits in allowing children and teens to develop tech proficiency. Let's navigate this landscape to find a balanced approach that safeguards our children's well-being while embracing the opportunities technology offers.




Three teen girls sit together looking at a smart phone


Understanding Screen Time:

Before diving into the debate, it's crucial to understand what exactly constitutes screen time. It encompasses a wide array of activities, from educational apps and video calls to mindless scrolling on social media. Not all screen time is created equal, and context matters. The key lies in discerning between passive consumption and active engagement.


The Risks:

Excessive screen time has been linked to a myriad of issues, including decreased physical activity, disrupted sleep patterns, and impaired social development. Prolonged exposure to screens can also lead to eyestrain and posture problems. Moreover, the content our children encounter online may not always be age-appropriate, exposing them to potential risks such as cyberbullying and inappropriate material. For a thorough and eye-opening overview of this issue, I recommend social psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt's book The Anxious Generation and his accompanying website.



A group of teens huddle together looking at their phones, with their phones covering their faces


The Benefits:

Despite its pitfalls, screen time isn't inherently evil. When used mindfully, technology can be a powerful tool for learning, creativity, and connection. Educational apps and online resources can supplement traditional learning methods, catering to diverse learning styles and interests. Additionally, digital platforms enable children to communicate with long-distance family members, and (when old enough and with supervision) to connect with peers, fostering social bonds and expanding their worldview.



A father and daughter sit together holding a tablet while smiling


Striking a Balance:

So, how do we strike a balance between reaping the benefits of technology and mitigating its risks? The key lies in moderation and intentionality. Set clear boundaries and establish a healthy screen time routine tailored to your child's age and needs. Encourage a balanced lifestyle that encompasses physical activity, outdoor play, and face-to-face interactions alongside screen time.


Tips for Parents:

  • Lead by example: Be mindful of your own screen habits, as children often mimic their parents' behavior. Try keeping your own device use at a minimum when with your children.

  • Embrace co-viewing and co-engagement: Watch educational videos together, play interactive games, and discuss online content to foster meaningful interactions.

  • Prioritize quality over quantity: Choose age-appropriate, educational content and apps that align with your child's interests and learning goals. For guidance on what content is appropriate for your child's age, I recommend the site Common Sense Media.

  • Establish tech-free zones and times: Designate specific areas in your home, such as the dinner table, as screen-free zones. Avoid screen time before bed and keep digital devices out of bedrooms at night. Set aside dedicated screen-free hours for family bonding and offline activities.

  • Foster open communication: Encourage your child to share their online experiences and concerns with you. Be proactive in addressing any issues that arise and educate them about online safety practices.

  • Take a gradual approach to technology: For young children, limit iPad and tablet use to only certain educational games and apps, or for "emergency" use only (e.g., airplane trips). For teens, this means no smart phones before high school and limiting social media access.

  • Be active in monitoring and limiting screen use: Use parental control apps to help manage and monitor screen time and social media usage. Features can include setting time limits, blocking apps, and monitoring online activity. For teens, use these tools as a way to teach your teen about responsible online behavior, rather than just policing their activities. For younger children, use a timer to create screen time limits and be firm in your boundaries.

  • Make it a team effort: Advocate for phone-free schools at all grades. Encourage the parents of your children's peers to get on board for device and screen limits. Have thoughtful conversations with family members and other caregivers about your concerns and limits regarding screen time.

  • Encourage other activity: Encourage participation in sports, outdoor activities, or any hobbies that do not involve screens and instead promote self-esteem, responsibility, and independence. Plan regular family activities that encourage interaction without screens, such as board games, cooking, or outdoor adventures.



A happy family gather together on the floor playing a board game


Conclusion:

In our ever-evolving digital landscape, navigating the complexities of screen time can feel like a daunting task. However, with mindful guidance and proactive parenting, we can empower our children to harness the power of technology responsibly. By striking a balance between screen time and real-world experiences, we can cultivate a healthy relationship with technology that enriches rather than detracts from our children's lives. Together, let's embark on this journey of discovery, embracing the endless possibilities of the digital age while safeguarding our children's well-being.

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