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By Jennifer Watson

Parents often instinctively feel they should monitor the type of content students access on computers, Chromebooks, phones and tablets, but research has been emerging in the last few years that indicates that they should also limit the amount of time their children spend in front of screens even if the content is acceptable.  Preliminary research, conducted by the National Institute for Health in their $300-million Adolescent Brain Cognitive Study revealed that children who “spend more than two hours a day in front of a screen every day score lower on language and thinking tests” than children who don’t.

Two hours a day may seem like a comfortably long time until one realizes that screen time is cumulative. Time spent texting, playing video games, and watching television and videos all count toward the total.  Many children exceed that amount of screen time easily. In fact, according to a survey conducted by Common Sense Media, most teens spend an average of nine hours a day in front of screens!

But it’s not just children’s academic performance that is at risk.  Researcher Jean Twenge, writing in the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic, noticed generational differences that coincided with 2012, the year when the number of Americans who owned smartphones exceeded fifty percent. She points out that smartphones and tablets have changed the way teens do just about everything. This has led to a number of significant differences between this recent generation of students who don’t remember a time before the internet and previous generations.  Some of these differences are good. That teens are physically safer and less likely to abuse alcohol or have casual sex is a positive good. However, a lot of the other trends are much more alarming. 

Teens today are less mature and less independent than teens of the past. Fewer of today’s teens work at paying jobs, and they are less likely to get drivers licenses.  They spend less time doing things with friends, and a large number of their social interactions are likely to be through their phones rather than in person. On average they do less homework than previous generations and get less sleep than doctors say they need.  “Fifty-seven percent more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991.”  Much of the extra time they have carved out of their days is spent on screens.

Despite these negative changes in children’s behavior, perhaps the most alarming fact uncovered by the research is that increased time on screens is negatively correlated with happiness. Loneliness and depression are on the rise.  “The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression”, and  suicide rates of 12-14 year olds doubled for boys and tripled for girls from 2007 to 2015.

Since we know that increased screen time is correlated with increased depression and loneliness in students, as well as poorer thinking and language scores, perhaps it is time for us to take action.  As parents, we should think long and hard about getting our children smartphones and tablets, perhaps delaying such purchases until they are older. Currently the average age a child gets a phone is 10.3 years old. By the age of twelve, 50% of all kids have social media accounts.

As a parent who straddled the divide between the older children who didn’t have phones and those that did, I was really grateful that my youngest daughter had a phone when she started to go places on her own. It was comforting to be able to call her when she was out and know exactly where she was.  I also knew she could call us if the car broke down or her plans changed. Because of economic considerations, we stumbled into what now seems to us to have been a great solution. We got her a flip phone. A basic flip phone provides the same connection that is comforting to parents and reassuring to children but minimizes most–though not all–of the attractive and detrimental features of smartphones.

Given all of the negatives mentioned above, perhaps we parents should also consider seriously curtailing children’s time in front of screens. This is not an easy solution, and  there may be pushback from kids who are currently allowed a lot of screen time, but statistics show that young people may actually be relieved if parents set stricter limits. The Pew Research Center found that more than fifty percent of teens thought they personally spent too much time on their cell phones, and sixty percent saw excessive internet use by their generation as a problem.  Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics, has said about kids’ internet use, “It’s not a drug, but it might as well be. It works the same way… it has the same results.”

For more information on the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Study see RT Questions More’s report on the study’s preliminary findings on screen time and children. To read Jean Twenge’s article in The Atlantic about the emotional impact of smartphones on children see: “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”:  

Sources:

“It’s official: Excessive screen time.” RT Question More.  https://www.rt.com/usa/446130-screen-time-kids-study/11 Dec. 2018.
 “Landmark Report: U.S. Teens Use an Average of Nine Hours of Media Per Day, Tweens Use Six Hours.” Common Sense Media.  https://www.commonsensemedia.org/about-us/news/press-releases/landmark-report-us-teens-use-an-average-of-nine-hours-of-media-per-day
Twenge, Jean. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic. September 2017.https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/

Anderson, Jenny. “Even Teens Are Worried They Spend Too Much Time on Their Phones.” Quartz, Quartz, 23 Aug. 2018, https://qz.com/1367506/pew-research-teens-worried-they-spend-too-much-time-on-phones/.

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