Tips to Manage Screen Time in Kids
According to the Pew Research Center, 95% of teens have access to a smart phone and 88% have access to a laptop or computer in their home. Prior to the pandemic, kids were spending an average of 6-9 hours per day on screens, and that number has likely increased significantly over the past year. It's no wonder that many parents and professionals have concerns about the impact that screen time and social media use is having on kids' mental, social, and cognitive development.
Research to date has been mixed. Many studies, including some large-scale, long-term studies, have found a correlation between the amount of screen time kids use and worse mental health outcomes. However, so many other confounding factors and stressors that are unique to this generation make it difficult to conclude that screens or social media is actually the cause of worsening mental health among youth. In fact, there are even some studies that suggest that teens with pre-existing mental health issues are more likely to use electronics than their healthy peers.

In many cases, social media and screen technology have actually enhanced many people's lives, especially over the past year when we have relied on these technologies to keep us connected to friends and loved ones that we could not see in person. Therefore, when targeting strategies to regulate your kids' device use, it's important to keep a balanced perspective and to work with your child to create better, lasting habits that they can maintain into adulthood.
How do I know if screen time is a problem?
Much of the research to date shows that problems with cognitive and emotional development emerge when teens are spending at least seven hours of their day on screens/social media. However, another way to judge if screen time is becoming a problem is when you notice a significant drop in your child's ability to function or in their quality of life. If screen time is causing your child to avoid certain activities or situations, demonstrate a drop in their academic performance, not spend as much time with their friends in person (when safely allowed), or not take care of their other basic healthcare needs, their electronic use is likely a problem that needs addressing. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents with kids over the age of six set consistent limits on screen usage and ensure that screen time is not interfering with sleep or physical activity.
How can I create better screen time habits?
Establish the rules ahead of time:
  • Place limits on the amount of time electronics are able to be used for leisure
  • Review this limit ahead of time with your kids so they know what to expect and may be less likely to negotiate for more time later
  • Create clear expectations of tasks (e.g., chores, homework, exercise) that need to be completed before your teen is able to use his electronics
  • Designate media free times and places during which the whole family is encouraged to “disconnect” or “unplug” (e.g., dinnertime, bedtime)

Familiarize yourself with parent controls:
  • Remember that while there are necessary and practical reasons for cell phones and electronics and it may not be possible to take phones away completely, parents still have responsibility to monitor and restrict how devices are used
  • Use parent controls that limit access to certain apps via password protection
  • Certain phones and apps also have tools to monitor the amount of time spent on the device/app. Use these tools to monitor and help enforce limits for your child

Model healthy behavior:
  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline
  • Model appropriate social media/electronic use yourself so your child has a good example to follow
  • Manage your own anxiety about not having constant access to communication with your kids 

Remove the temptation:
  • Cell phone apps are designed to lure people into using them. Willpower may not be enough to stop using them
  • Keep phones or electronics in a separate room to avoid “temptation” or sneaking behavior
  • Remove apps from the phone or keep them in a separate folder to reduce likelihood of mindlessly clicking on them
  • Change the color of the screen to grayscale
  • Move apps around on the phone to also prevent mindless clicking

Meet your kids where they're at:
  • Talk to them to figure out why they feel anxious when they do not have their phones or what is causing them to feel depressed in relation to their phone/social media
  • Listen before lecturing or providing advice and validate their concerns before sharing your own
  • Align with your child so that he/she feels you are both working towards a common goal
  • If your child perceives that his/her phone is helping them “cope” with anxiety, problem-solve with them how he/she can replace it with something healthier

Electronics are very much a real part of our reality and they are not going away anytime soon. They have been essential during the pandemic to help us continue working, completing school, and socializing. Strategies aimed at eliminating them are often not realistic or sustainable. Phones have functional purposes, but they are still privileges, even though “everyone has them and needs them." Our job as parents and professionals is to teach our kids how to moderate their use of these new tools.
How can mental health professionals help?
If your child is not responding to interventions that you're trialing at home, a mental health professional may be able to help, especially if underlying mental health conditions may be exacerbating the problems. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based intervention for depression and anxiety that looks at how thoughts and behaviors affect our feelings. In therapy, kids will learn how to identify and irrational thoughts related to their electronic use (e.g., "I need to check my phone constantly or I will miss something.") and how to replace them with more balanced thoughts (e.g., "This text can wait until I am done with my homework."). CBT can also help kids develop better behavioral habits to replace excessive electronic use with healthier behaviors.
Where can I learn more?
For more information, please contact us directly at -or- (949) 891-0307.
Tips for parents