How Screen Time Affects Kids


A few weeks ago my high school hosted a presentation by Dr. Mike Brooks, a highly-regarded psychologist here in Austin.  Dr. Brooks is the founder of the Austin Psychology and Assessment Center, which is one of the main testing centers in town.  In addition to providing psychological services for the Austin community, Dr. Brooks spends much of his time researching the use of technology by kids.  His research dates back to the golden age of video games, and he has written many articles on the subject.

The presentation at my school was titled:  Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World.  As you can imagine, it was very well attended, given the amount of concern parents currently express over this topic.  In fact, just yesterday, I saw an article online that referenced a survey in which 47% of parents are worried that their child is addicted to his or her phone.  That is alarming!

Dr. Brooks is an excellent speaker.  He was funny and engaging, yet he was realistic about the challenges of raising kids in this digitally-connected world.  As a father of two boys, he could easily relate to the audience.

Drawing on current research, Dr. Brooks laid out a very balanced approach to screen time.  He mentioned several times that “balance is key” to raising healthy kids when it comes to screen time.  So what does “balance” mean?  According to research, up to two hours of screen time is allowable.  Any more than that, and kids start experiencing the negative side effects more rapidly.  Among those negative effects:

  • Decrease in overall happiness
  • Loss of sleep
  • Higher rates of anxiety and depression (linked to loss of sleep)
  • Greater feelings of loneliness

It’s easy to see how these negative effects can also affect academic performance.  Students who are overly tired, depressed, and anxious certainly have higher rates of academic difficulties.

Intesestingly, despite social media’s ability to “connect” kids, those kids who spend more than two hours per day on social media feel increasingly lonely.  Talk about a catch-22.  It’s no secret that social media giants like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat intentionally make their products addictive so as to maximize their users time on their products; the more time people spend on social media, the more advertising revenue those companies make.  So even though kids are “chatting” on their apps, the depth of those interactions are adversely impacting their social and emotional well-being.

So how does a parent combat these addictive technologies?

Dr. Brooks addressed this very question in a variety of ways.  I actually posed two questions to him about this:

1)  Does immersing kids into extracurricular activities help limit screen time?

Yes!  Dr. Brooks, and some of the parents in the audience, shared their own viewpoints, and most everyone agreed that putting students into activities such as sports, theater, journalism, etc. outside of school certainly decreases the amount of time they have to spend on social media.

2)  When it comes to one’s peers and one’s parents, who has the most influence on kid’s behavior?

As you might expect, the answer is “both.”  Kids spend about half their time with their parents and half their time with their peers at school, so it’s natural that both have an influence on screen use and screen behavior.  However, as Dr. Brooks noted, parents have the authority to limit screen use and monitor behavior, unlike a child’s peers can.  Important to note is that monitoring phones and other devices by parents can be detrimental as it can erode any trust between parent and child.  The threat of monitoring, however, is an effective deterrent.

Which leads to Dr. Brook’s overall takeaway from his presentation:  As addictive as social media and other internet-based technology is, parents do have an ability to limit their influence.  The #1 way parents can do this is by spending quality time together as a family.  When parents model appropriate behavior to their children, this has a tremendous impact.  That means we, as parents, need to be aware of our own internet and social media use.  When it’s dinner time, we must all put our phones away and have a conversation as a family.

Dr. Brooks suggested the 5/1 rule, which means that for every one negative interaction you have with your child you should have 5 positive interactions.  Research demonstrates that this ratio is the sweet spot for holding your child accountable while at the same time fostering the buddy/buddy relationship we also crave.  I encourage you to think about your use of technology and how it may (or may not) inhibit relationships within your family.  Making a positive change in your own behavior will have a tremendous impact on everyone.