What Screen Time Does to Our Kids (and What We Can Do About It)

For many parents I know, it’s one of those prime examples of “what I thought I’d never do before I had kids” versus “what I ended up doing after I actually had them.” After all, most of us were children of those pre-tech boom years. (Some of us were even pre-T.V.) We never had all the gadgets when we were growing up. Instead, we spent hours of childhood being bored and finding creative solutions that had no connection to a power outlet. Our tech toys were the likes of Lite-Brite or walkie-talkies (if we were lucky), not $600 app-loaded tablets. Summer road trip? That’s what Mad Libs were for.

What a different landscape today. Computers, laptops, tablets, phones, iWhatever, big screen T.V.s, portable players – not to mention the infinite libraries of apps, Netflix, Hulu and (of course) the Internets. Let’s face it. All those Baby Einstein DVDs seem quaint compared to everything a kid could do on a smart phone these days.

With their phones, computers, T.V.s and other gadgets, teenagers’ tech use might be well over eleven hours a day of screen time, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report. The average 8-year-old isn’t far behind with eight hours of screen usage. (PDF)

Eight hours – that’s a full-time job….

How are these hours being used? A Nielsen study showed that 55% of kids 12 and under who used their parents’ tablets played with them during travel – whether to/from school or on longer treks. Forty percent of the kids used them while at restaurants or other events. As for teenagers, over 75% of them have their own phones. Consider the rather striking statistic that the average teen with a cell phone sends nearly 3400 text messages each month. Add to that all the music, video, social media, gaming and other entertainment applications.

And what a price our kids are paying…

Other than an head-scratching study here or there citing some slight advantage of electronically-based “academic” learning, the vast body of research indicates that heavy – and early – use of electronic media impairs a child’s socio-emotional development and can even lead to mental health issues. Consider that early screen time (at ages one and three) has correlated with a higher risk for attentional issues by age seven.

Children 8-18 who showed heavy technology use reported lower grades, more disciplinary issues and increased sadness and boredom. (PDF) Other research confirms these connections, with kids responding “true” or “somewhat true” more often to study questions such as “I am often unhappy, down-hearted or tearful” or “I generally play alone or keep to myself.” Even significant physical activity wasn’t enough to shift these impediments.

Perhaps the scariest statistics are those that reveal the impact of technology on social skills. One study showed that preteens who went without access to technology for six days (as part of a camping trip) had significantly better recognition of facial expressions and nonverbal emotional cues than those who had regular access to their gadgets. (Both groups took pre- and post-tests.)

Finally, we all can guess the most obvious effect of screen (i.e. sedentary time). Kids with heavy tech usage or who have T.V.s in their bedrooms are at a much higher risk for obesity – a risk that lingers well into adulthood.

This is a drop in the bucket as far as impact.

Let me back up for a minute and say I’m not an absolutist who believes screens have no place in a child’s home or education. I don’t think this discussion can be reduced to the “big, bad iPad.” It amazes me what can be illustrated through video or interactive demonstration on a classroom tablet. I’m amazed at some of the things my kids can do as a result of their experience with technology and with what’s available to them (photos of Pluto, anyone?). I just don’t ever want them to lose sight of the fact that the virtual world is a lesser reflection of (and simple tool) for the pretty awesome real world.

Nor do I have interest in joining the angry fervor that gets pinned on some random stranger who suddenly becomes the social media effigy of bad parenting just because someone saw her at the park when she was on her phone and decided to write an article about how she was all that’s wrong about American parenting today. Call me stubborn, but I question the benefit of pinning a society-wide problem on a single individual. With this in mind, I don’t automatically judge the person who allows his/her child to play on the phone in the grocery store line or in a barber shop chair. How do I know what kind of day it’s been for that family? And who am I to know what kind of emotional or sensory experience sitting in a raised chair with scissors in his face might be for that 4-year-old kid? It’s not about judging someone’s strategic use of technology.

All that said, I don’t think this precludes anyone from suggesting it’s time to deal with the broader trends here. Assuming we start with ourselves, what does a solution look like? Let me throw out some ideas….

Ration – but don’t treat screen time like a reward.

Why is it we blame kids when they whine and cajole for extra time with their devices, but then we turn around and “gift” them added tech hours when they get good grades or clean their room. Resist their ploys to “earn” more time in front of a screen, and set your own limits – no apologies necessary.

Figure out a limit you’re comfortable with, being sure in most cases to lump all entertainment screen time together (it all has more or less the same effect). The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests no more than two hours daily for children above two-years-old. (They also offer some wise tips for assessing your family’s media diet and for making a family pledge with rules for safe media use.)

Make dates with the real world.

One of the reasons I think kids are so hooked into the virtual world is their disconnect from the more charming aspects of the real one. When technology becomes the window on the world in the educational sector (guess we don’t need field trips anymore!) and the entertainment source at home, there’s not much incentive to go anywhere else.

Make a priority of taking your kids to live concerts, live performances, town festivals, parades, fairs and active entertainment venues (e.g. corn mazes, trampoline parks, etc.) – and most of all natural settings. Sure, we need to consciously reduce the time kids spend with screens, but the best way to do this is to give them something to say yes to – a better alternative of fun, social and enriching experience.

Rein yourself in.

Too often our admonishing diatribes reflect a “Do as I say, not as I do” reality. We cut our kids off from their devices but are on our own gadgets during all hours of the day – including family time like meals, conversation or bedtime.

Be the change you want to see in them. Give them a model – and the gift of your full presence. It’s heart-wrenching, quite honestly, to read kids’ opinions about their parents’ phones and devices – responses (according to research) that revolved around language like “sad, mad, angry and lonely.” Is this really the relationship you want your kids to remember?

Sure, there will be times when it’s been that kind of day, and spending a bit of time on Facebook while they play at the park really does offer you a strategic (and maybe mentally necessary) means of temporary withdrawal. Except how many of us apply this excuse throughout every day? Employ a different, low-tech prop for the days you really need one. Better yet, get up and let you kids see you doing an actual activity that refuels you – doing your own exploration of a park (with them still in full sight), working on some art or coloring (yup, not just for kids anymore), or exercising.

Become a social hub.

If one of the most disconcerting effects of heavy media use is reduced social skills and nonverbal cue reading, steep your kids in social opportunities. Invite their friends for play dates and sleepovers (just be sure to collect the devices at the beginning and/or ration the tech use). Yes, the onus will likely be on you to host. Give them space and freedom throughout the house with their friends, and they’ll soon find some way to otherwise occupy their time.

Consider becoming a low-tech household (at least for regular but temporary stints).

Here’s where I get a little radical. (This is the fun part in my mind, but others may disagree.) I want people to believe that they can truly upend certain elements of their lives that society treats as givens.

What would it really be like to put all your devices in storage for a weekend…or a week…or a month? How about donating the televisions, dumping cable and/or cutting back the data plans? Would you consider a no-tech vacation? Or how about an intentional power outage?

Come up with a family “experiment” – even better if the kids can help you plan it. Commit to something that stretches everyone’s comfort zone, and make a tradition out of whatever you decided – maybe challenging everyone to “up the ante” a little each time. Talk about how you’ll fill the time with projects, games, outings and other adventures. Your kids might be won over in ways you wouldn’t anticipate.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. How do you deal with screen time in your household? What’s worked for you and those you know. Share your thoughts, and enjoy the end of your week.

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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22 thoughts on “What Screen Time Does to Our Kids (and What We Can Do About It)”

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  1. We are gearing up for our first babies arrival, and are already talking about how we can keep our household ‘tech light.’ We don’t watch much TV, haven’t had cable in years, but we both are on our phones quite a bit. Once little man is here we are going to try to reserve our phone time for after his bed time, and continue to never use phones while eating, or when talking to each other/having people over.

  2. The other ticking bomb is the circadian disruption due to the bright and blue light at night.

    With cell and wifi device, people need to draw their own conclusions about the RF hazards. Suppose that the energy doesn’t need to be ionizing to be a cancer risk.

  3. We try to cut off electronics by 9pm. Break out the board games!

  4. Ours was the crazy family with no tv when our kids were small. I’ve never regretted it, & my kids have actually thanked me for it. Yes, our house was messier than many, full of books, building sets, science projects & art materials, often a fine haze of play dough & glitter everywhere… it was worth it.

    I’m not a Luddite by any means but I deeply believe true creativity & learning come from hands-on experience.

  5. Great post! Thanks for this timely (for my family) article. I just said to my husband this morning that the screen time is getting out of control in our household. Thanks for the empowerment and the ammunition to set some limits!

  6. The other day I saw that a study has shown that violent computer games contribute to aggression in people. (Wow, who didn’t already know that?) The same could be said for violent TV shows, a few of which appear to be nothing more than training manuals for wannabe serial killers.

    On the other side of the coin, however, not all kids have an addictive interest in electronic devices but it’s certainly something parents need to watch for and monitor accordingly. I don’t think a genuine creative interest in the electronics modality itself should be stifled.

  7. Screen time is like fat. There’s good fat, and bad fat. Every watch two kids in the same room playing minecraft together on their ipads? It’s fun, creative, engaging, and social. That being said, this is a problem and the solution falls squarely on the parents. I always cringe when I see parents in restaurants, on the street, wherever, staring at their phone and ignoring their kids. Mark is dead on that you can’t just limit screen time without providing alternatives, especially in the awkward bridge periods when there isn’t enough time to do something more significant, or when everyone is burnt out from an active day and just wants to chill out. In my house that’s generally a time for cards, chess, backgammon, sword fighting, slacklining, or reading, and parent participation is critical here. The way I look at it, those times are a win/win. It takes both child and parent out of their daily flow and into a mutually beneficial experience. Two hard rules that work: 1) Max 21 hours per week of electronics. 2) Any resistance to putting away a device on request means that the device gets locked away for a minimum of 24 hours.

  8. Thank you. Going to show to my 11 year old why he cant play robocraft to stave off loneliness and boredom. We live rurally and no close playmates and the impetus to do something own his own is hard to get. Guilty parent in that I often dont “play” with him. So much to do and I often dont like play in the child sense…very ungrok or just a different personality. Fun is walking talking reading reflecting. Not so in the eyes of an 11 year old boy. Definitely should try more but have 1 smaller child and 2 baby twin boys coming in a couple months. ..so I always hope my son can make his own fun. His dad is like me.

  9. I’m all for less screen time for all of us, but once you’ve got a kid in high school these xxhrs/week limits aren’t realistic. My 11th grader has online classes plus extensive web based curriculum components for the rest of her classes. She easily racks up 4 hours a night just doing schoolwork.

  10. Mad Libs still exist. I gave my sister the Star Wars Mad Libs for Christmas last year and they finished by the pad by New Year’s!

  11. Wow, I usually like the quality of discourse here. The truth is there is precious little causative study or information linking “screen time” to any serious problems. The ‘studies’ there are available look more like the ones that try to link vaccines to autism.

    My son has had his own computer since he was 2. He’s had access to phones, tablets and video games. Much of his socialization is with other neighborhood kids sitting in my living room playing video games with frequent spontaneous nerf gun wars or super soaker fights, depending on the weather.

    He’s 11 now, reads at a college level, knows every bit of everything about technology, plays on both football and basketball teams, and is approaching his black belt in mixed martial arts. Thin as a rail, very interested in healthy eating and exercise.

    When I was a kid in the 60’s it was “You kids with your long hair and loud rock music aren’t going to amount to anything”. Change is scary. But its a digital world now, and social lives are changing. Is it better or worse? Both in my opinion.

  12. Hi, everyone. Just a heads up that Mark’s Daily Apple was maliciously attacked today. This resulted in the site loading slowly to not at all for most of the day. It looks like we have a handle on it now, but apologies if you were trying but unable to access the site earlier.

    1. Ah, I gave up when the site wouldn’t loan properly, but it’s fine this morning! Those danged vegans are at it again.

      1. Sure, there will be times when it’s been that kind of day, and spending a bit of time on Facebook while they play at the park really does offer you a strategic (and maybe mentally necessary) means of temporary withdrawal.

  13. One of the best things that happened in our house was that when our kids were toddlers or early elementary kids, we got a new TV system, and my husband tried to install it himself. It didn’t work, and then he got stubborn about it and kept trying to fix it himself. Months went by.

    The kids forgot about the TV, and when it finally got fixed we “forgot” to tell them. Today they are tweens and don’t really watch. They don’t look for it.

    While I do agree that there’s nothing wrong with a little of all of this, what I found was giving just a little–the crack in the door–created this naggy, whiney kid where no amount was enough. In those situations, I think there’s a lot to be said for going cold turkey. And if you say it’s broken (as opposed to a scenario where they know it’s you just shutting it off) the nagging stops.

  14. Not only our youth can be negatifly affected by all the digital screentime. I closed off my facebook page because i was noticing that i would just scroll away endlesly instead of making music going to the gym or prepping some nice primal meal. 2.5 months in and still sometimes feel like i am missing put on whatever is going on in the lifes of others but i do notice so much more around me and in me lately which is an excellent result of my little n=1 experiment haha

  15. We bought an iPad right before a trip to Hawaii so our daughter could watch movies if she got bored on the flight over. It really didn’t work for us (she was only 18-months-old). However, it’s been something she’s come to like a lot since. She can draw, play lots of fairly educational games and watch the occasional movie at night while we get ready. It’s also super handy on long (multi hour) drives.

    I’m decidedly not in the “no screens” camp. I’m a programmer and my early love of video games is what sent me down this career path.

    I think the key is really just about not allowing it to dominate the day (she’s on no more than an hour these days although the time crept up a bit when we were juggling her newborn brother months ago) and making sure it’s not the only option. She loves books and blocks and running around and helping me cook as much or more.

    I think it’s important to remember by your giving a kid something like that to play with. Is it another toy or is it a pacifier? I never cease to be amazed by whole families sitting at tables when I got out to dinner with every member staring at the screen.

  16. One thing I disagree with, I think you can indeed lump most entertainment screen time together, but not when you’re watching a show with the family and interacting during it. Watching Amazing Race with the kids while talking about the different places they travel to (maybe some of which you’ve been to and you can tell the kids about what you saw yourself), plus commenting on the social behaviour of the racers — very different from my 9 year old watching iCarly for 90 minutes straight on her iPod.
    Awesome article though!

    1. Why is it we blame kids when they whine and cajole for extra time with their devices, but then we turn around and “gift” them added tech hours when they get good grades or clean their room.

  17. One of the best things I ever did, when I move into my house (after a divorce) I did not get cable. My daughter has lived here for 8 years without television. We actually consider it a chore to have to sit down and watch something and when it is on in someone else’s home or a restaurant, I can feel myself getting agitated. Read, draw, play frisbee, do crafts, cook, bake, plant, talk, do puzzles, play music (as in, play an instrument), play games, do yoga, meditate, study, throw a ball, play badminton, go for a walk . . . how many more suggestions do you need?