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Weighing in on Screen Time for the Millennial Parent

child using technology

Have you heard of Parentology? It’s an information hub for parenting in the digital age. The site was launched in 2019 and aims to help parents stay up-to-date on the latest news, trends, and technologies that impact a family’s daily life. The recently released this study pictured below.

screen-time survey

As a pediatrician, the results stun me. According to the survey, 1 in 5 parents say they plan to purchase their elementary school aged child a cell phone this year. As a millennial parent, I can still distinctly remember when I got my first cell phone. It was when I could drive, ie be away from my parents. If you think about it, that is why cell phones were created- to communicate with each other at a distance, not for simply texting or games. At the age of an elementary school child, it should be used purely for communication in an out of the ordinary circumstance such as a sleep over or after school event. Remember, if they’re at school and an emergency arises, the school office phone or school nurse’s phone is readily available. Sending phones to school at this age with children increases risk of distractions.

So as a pediatrician, why do I care so much about screen time? Increased digital media use is linked to poor sleep. Young children with more media exposure or who have a TV, computer, or mobile device in their bedroom sleep less than the recommended 10-12 hours and fall asleep later at night. Even infants’ sleep quality can be affected by screens. Poor sleep quality and the likelihood of less movement while being glued to a screen also increases the risk of obesity. But, the biggest reason I recommend limiting media use is the delay in learning & social skills as well as the increased risk of behavior problems. Children who watch high amounts of media in infancy and preschool years can show delays in attention, cognition, language and social skills. Less interaction with parents and family while watching a screen can lead to delay in communicative milestones like joint attention and language.

As a millennial parent, that’s not to say I ban screens in my home. It’s no secret that digital media is here to stay, but we must remain smart and vigilant with how we choose to expose our children to it. There is numerous data that shows a sharp increase in the number of adolescents who report experiencing negative psychological symptoms, specifically those born in 1995 or later, a generation termed “iGen.” Coincidentally, the greatest spike in symptoms occurred in 2011, around the same time social media bursts onto the scene.

As a board-certified pediatrician and child wellness expert, my concern is how early we choose to expose our children to technology. There is no benefit in an infant looking at a screen, period, but with a preschool child or school age child, with a simple tap or swipe of the screen, they can land on the wrong site or video, as evidenced by the recently popular viral story about the “Momo Challenge” phenomenon.

So what’s a parent to watch out for? If you’re going to provide screens at an earlier age, then it's key to remember their age. It can be difficult for a school age child or middle schooler to reliably recount their use of recreational screen time given that they are likely using the device at all times to not just communicate but also play games and even perhaps to do homework. The same applies for a teenager. How many teens can estimate their screen time given the hundreds of times they check their phone during the day even for a few seconds? Rather than simply setting a screen time limit for your child, enforce a family media plan that is firm but reasonable about your family’s media use. Stay involved in your kids’ media habits with co-viewing so rather than simply watching out for red flags, you are intimately involved in what their media use pertains to.

Remember social media can also increase the risk of cyber bullying. So if a child or teen is purposely refraining from their phone, whereas before it was a huge communication tool for them amongst his or her friends, that could be a red flag for bullying. It’s proven that the increased use of social media is contributing to a new era of child and teen social stress, but when we accept its presence in our lives in a smart way, we can help our kids learn to use media safely.

Media use guidelines will change from age to age.

For children under 18 mos, media use, outside of FaceTime with relatives, should be very limited.

When children are 18 to 24 mos, we recommend if you are introducing digital media, consider high quality programming (ie Sesame Street) and always co-view with your child.

Children 2-5 years of age should have screen use of only 1 hour max and again, always co-viewed.

A note on apps: Many are advertised as “educational,” but make sure you know what you’re downloading. Most educational apps target skills like ABC’s and shapes. These skills are only one part of school readiness. The other crucial skills young children need to learn for success in school (and life) include impulse control, managing emotions, and creative, flexible thinking. These are best taught and learned through unstructured and social play with family and friends in the real world. If you choose to purchase “eBooks” or digital books for your child, I recommend the kind that don’t have too much sound and visual effect which distract children more so than teach a story.

And please, all millennial parents out there-here me now:

Avoid using media as the only way to calm your children. Although it can help quiet children during a flight or uncomfortable setting (for example, a medical procedure), try to use other techniques besides media to soothe your child. A media dependence with tantrums can lead to problems with a child's own ability understanding limits, rules, and managing emotions. Never feel pressured to introduce technology early. Your children will learn quickly how to use it when they need to.

If your children insist on having a screen, consider your own screen use. If you find your screens are starting to displace activities you think are more important or meaningful, that’s a sign that you may want to take re-assess. For example, if it’s bath time for your children, and instead you’re looking at a smartphone while they’re playing, that’s a red flag of your media use coming in the way of meaningful activities. You want to feel technology is improving or additive to your life, not adding stress or decreasing the quality of life.

I discuss the positive and negative aspects of media use among children, ironically enough, on my Instagram. If interested, follow me at @dr.amnahusain to learn more about my tips as a millennial mom and pediatrician raising children in the digital age.

common sense media

* All information subject to change. Images may contain models. Individual results are not guaranteed and may vary.