**This guide is now available in a beautifully designed PDF format here**
There’s no doubt that modern marvels like the internet, cellphones and social media have simplified our lives. We’re connected to loved ones no matter where they live and a constant flow of information is at our fingertips. Social media has sparked movements, called attention to issues that we didn’t even know existed and has turned children, pets and inanimate objects into millionaires.
But there’s also the ugly side to connectivity that we don’t talk about as often - the feelings of shame from comparing ourselves to others, cyberbullies targeting tweens and teens and the mental effects of spending hours upon hours each week in front of a screen.
In a technology-driven world we can’t shield our kids completely from screen time, but we can learn how to use modern tools effectively and safely so that our children thrive - online and offline.
Part 1: Screen time
Understanding the numbers
We’ve all heard stats about how kids (and adults) consume a mind-boggling amount of media, but they’re worth revisiting in our discussion about parenting in the digital age:
- Children and young adults spend an average of 170 minutes (3+ hours) per day on various forms of social media
- Nearly 40 percent of children in the US own smartphones
- On average kids between the ages of 12-17 are watching a part time job’s worth (15+ hours) of shows and movies every week
- 76 percent of parents in a recent study agreed that kids should spend less time in front of screens
If you’ve broached the topic of technology use with other parents, you’ve probably heard mixed responses. Some parents want their kids to have smartphones as a safety measure and there are moms and dads who feel that their kids learn from watching TV shows and movies or playing video games.
Others shield their kids completely from screens by removing TVs and other devices from their homes. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, the stats tell a clear story: parents are concerned about screen time.
What’s the big deal? There are negatives....
Living in the digital age comes with mental, physical and emotional challenges. Quite a few studies have uncovered detrimental effects from too much screen time, especially for kids under the age of five.
In a 2019 study researchers found that toddlers who are exposed to excessive screen time - defined as more than an hour on devices per day - around 24 months are less likely to tick off critical development markers on time at 36 months and at 60 months of age.
In those early months of growth babies are soaking in the world around them and picking up basic skills from their external environment. They’re learning words, figuring out how to use their hands, getting up on their own two feet and absorbing an unbelievable amount of information.
“All of these little developmental cues, they take so much time to build up. And while a lot of well-meaning caregivers think that perhaps technology might even be able to teach their child better or more effectively, it really seems that is not the case.” --Dr. Skyler Kalady, MD (Pediatrician)
Focus And Attention Span Are At Risk
Too much screen time can stunt these processes and interfere with normal development. Getting hooked on screens at a young age can affect a child’s ability to focus, give attention to a single task, communicate with others and build a large vocabulary.
Some parents fail to see the difference between cracking a book open with their child and handing them a tablet with a pre-loaded storybook - and we’ve all passed our kids a tablet or smartphone in a moment of desperate need for peace and quiet.
But research clearly shows that reading with your child is much better for their development than planting them in front of a device. In the tablet example, the device does the thinking for your child; there isn’t any need for them to visualize the story or anticipate what comes next.
Implications of saturating your child in screen time:
- It dulls communication skills. The frontal lobe is responsible for helping us gauge social situations, pick up on communication cues and empathize with others. Unless kids are balancing screen time with plenty of in-person communication, they’re at risk of living with a dulled sense of empathy and a stunted ability to pick up on social cues - possibly for the rest of their lives.
- It teaches kids to expect instant gratification. When your child touches a screen on a smartphone or tablet, it responds immediately and predictably. Games and shows are highly stimulating, with floods of colors, sounds and shapes. Kids get addicted to devices easily because of this instant response, so it’s important to temper screen time with lots of real-world interaction.
- There are physical effects, too. Too much screen time can lead to a stagnant lifestyle. Without plenty of physical activity, your kids are more likely to deal with long-term effects like obesity or poor health in general. Children can also come in contact with explicit adult content or become victims of cyberstalking or cyberbullying - things that can materially impact their lives if they don’t get help.
But there are positives too.
We’ve talked thoroughly about the negatives, but it isn’t all bad news. While too much screen time can have an impact on development, restricted and deliberate screen time on educational apps and shows can actually have positive effects, and limited screen time in general won’t significantly impact your child.
Using smartphones and tablets can help with hand-eye coordination and positively affect language skills. It also helps kids familiarize themselves with technology - a skill that comes in handy once they begin attending school and eventually enter the job market. Learning to use smartphones and tablets wisely also helps foster bonds between kids and far-away family members or friends in other parts of the world.
Some studies distinguish between active and passive screen time.
- Active Screen Time usually involves a physical element (like playing Pokemon Go, a game that incorporates movement into play)
- Passive Screen Time requires little movement (or thought) on the part of the consumer. The benefits of active screen time far outweigh passive screen time, even when kids are watching educational programming.
Striking the right balance
The message we’re hearing from researchers is to tread carefully: screen time is fine in moderation and can even have positive benefits. The challenge is that a light diet of smartphone and tablet use can easily spiral into a feast every single day - and the continuous, heavy use of devices has serious implications on young minds.
As parents, we can strike the right balance in our homes and protect our kids by being involved and informed about their internet, TV and smartphone use.
Part 2: Parenting tech-savvy kids (at every age)
Kids are introduced to technology from the moment they’re old enough to perceive the world around them: they notice us tinkering on our smartphones, streaming shows online and browsing the internet. Ever curious, tiny kids are eager to get their hands on smartphones and to figure out how they work.
Instead of fearing technology and keeping kids from it entirely, teach your kids to use these tools properly, and regulate their use until your kids are old enough to make wise decisions on their own.
At 0-2 years of age
Kids between 0 and 2 years of age shouldn’t have any sedentary screen time, according to recent guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO). Babies might not even take an interest in screens until they’re 6+ months old, but even then, most research shows that it’s best to avoid them.
If your two-year-old is watching a show as you read this, don’t panic - the guidelines from WHO are meant to be a roadmap for parents, but you’ll be the best judge of how screen time affects your child and if their screen time is well-balanced with their other life activities.
At this age researchers suggest reading physical books to your child early and often. Your child stands to gain so much from reading: books expand their imagination and increase their vocabulary, reading together strengthens your bond and helps build good habits for the future and reading fosters strong communication skills.
“A child who reads will be an adult who thinks” - Unknown
At such a young age your baby might not show much interest in books or may act distracted - but the key is to keep trying. Present them with different options, build a routine around reading and actively teach your child new words as they grow old enough to understand them.
To spark a love of reading in your child, try getting them them a personalized children’s book - they’ll be thrilled when they see themselves as the hero in their favorite story!
At 3-4 years of age
Toddlers are learning critical life skills and developing their character at this young age. Reading should be a strong component of their daily routine, but it’s also fine to introduce limited screen time at this point. Researchers say to stick to no more than an hour per day of age-appropriate shows or games.
We all know that toddlers are a breed of their own - parenting toddlers is tough! But resist the urge to use screen time as a bargaining chip or a babysitter. Instead, teach your toddlers solid habits and use screen time sparingly to entertain and educate them.
Create balance in their lives by getting out each day (even if it’s just a quick trip to the park), playing games and bonding as a family.
At 5-12 years of age
Firm screen time recommendations start to drop off around the age of 5. The answer to the screen time question becomes “it depends” and the “right” amount varies according to your child’s hobbies, schoolwork and other pursuits. If you’re looking for a solid number, guidelines out of Australia suggest that no more than 2 hours per day is a healthy limit.
The amount of time spent in front of screens may still be a concern at this point, but parents should educate their kids about more serious pitfalls, like adult content or cyberbullying.
A recent survey shows that 90 percent of young men have been exposed to adult content by the age of 18, and on average these men first came across it between 8 and 11 years old. Nearly 80 percent of the respondents first came across explicit materials online at home.
Cyberbullying is another problem that starts to rear its ugly head among tweens and teens. Statistics show that more than 50 percent of teenagers have been cyberbullied - and the same amount admit to cyberbullying others.
- Sending mean messages via text or online
- Accessing the online accounts of others to create unwanted posts or messages
- Distributing mean or unflattering images via text or phone
- Sending sexually explicit or suggestive messages about others online or via text
Later on, we’ll talk about what you can do to protect kids from online threats.
At 12+ years of age
We have to grapple with some tough questions as our tweens and teens grow up: does my child need a smartphone? Should I monitor their messages with others? Should I set limits on how and when they use their devices? My child finishes schoolwork and chores but watches hours of video games and TV everyday - how much is too much?
There is no right or wrong answer to these questions. Every family is different; one child might be completely responsible and transparent in their technology use while another might be at risk of being taken advantage of online without oversight.
As our kids grow up it’s important for us to stay aware; to stay on top of technological trends, understand potential pitfalls and provide our kids with plenty of guidance and support.
Part 3: Protecting kids from online threats
We’ve talked a bit about online threats, but it’s time to dive into some of the common threats that can ensnare our kids if we aren’t careful.
Cyberbullying is increasingly common in today’s world. Children are getting access to devices before they fully understand how to interact with others. Contrary to what you might think, any child can be a victim of cyberbullying - not just the shy, quiet kids who are targeted by bullies in movies.
Your child might be a victim of cyberbullying if they:
- Act secretive or defensive about their activities online
- Seem agitated, upset or angry while messaging with others or using social media
- Feel reluctant about going to school or interacting with others
- Perform poorly in classes
- Struggle to eat or sleep
If your child is the victim of cyberbullying, encourage them to open up to you without shame or fear. Show plenty of love and support. When they’re ready, work together with help from digital service providers, your child’s school and law enforcement (if needed) to prevent future cyberbullying incidents..
Sadly, there is of social pressure on kids to participate in cyberbullying. Education and empathy are two of the best tools for combating cyberbullying, and teaching your children to recognize cyberbullying and to take a stand for others is necessary in today’s world.
Some actionable ways that you and your kids can prevent cyberbullying include:
- Report content that is inappropriate or humiliating on social media so that it’s taken down
- Report cyberbullying incidents to trusted adults, such as a parent or teacher
- Support victims by showing them love and friendship
- Refuse to forward messages to others that are explicit, rude or humiliating
- Teach children empathy and compassion toward others
Remember that cyberbullying thrives on anonymity and secrecy, so it can tough for victims to speak up - they may worry that no one will believe them or care. We can do our part as parents to teach our children to treat others well and to stand up for what’s right.
Many kids are exposed to explicit content online before they’ve even learned about physical intimacy, and sadly it isn’t uncommon for children to get hooked on it at a young age.
Protect your young kids from explicit content by:
- Setting filters on the internet and social media to prevent children from accessing explicit material
- Encouraging open, age-appropriate conversations about physical intimacy and relationships
- Showing plenty of love and support to your child if they confide in you about things they’ve viewed online
You’ve probably opened your email to find promises of untold wealth from far away princes or a surprise introduction from a “rich relative” that you didn’t know existed. As adults, we’ve been around long enough to know if something reeks of a ripoff.
Regardless, plenty of adults get sucked into scams, so you can imagine how much easier it is for predators to rope in kids.
Scammers engaging with kids are often trying to get information from their parents, like credit card data or other sensitive items. Again, education is the best defense: teach your kids to never share sensitive information about themselves like their name, address or age with someone online that they don’t know.
Teach them early in life about sensitive vs shareable information and encourage them to come to you if someone is asking for inappropriate data.
Part 4: Finding Balance in the Digital Age
It’s an incredible time to be alive. We’re more connected than ever before and technology continues to revolutionize every aspect of our lives. As parents, we should encourage our kids to utilize technology in positive ways and to find balance in their lives by using each day wisely.
Strike a happy medium in your home by supplementing screen time with the following tips.
Get outside often
Fresh air revitalizes our bodies and lifts our spirits. Teach your children to appreciate the beauty of nature and to be curious about the world around them.
Live an active lifestyle
Run, hike, play, swim and walk often (and encourage your kids to do the same!) It isn’t always easy to get out but physical activity can do wonders for your child’s development.
Spend time bonding
Did you know that eating dinner as a family leads to higher grades, better overall health, more happiness and less stress? This simple daily act is scientifically proven to bring you and your family closer together. If dinner is tricky to coordinate try a family breakfast or a weekly game night - there are lots of creative ways to bond with your kids.
Foster a love of learning
We are teaching our little ones from day one. Our kids look to us from the start; our love of learning and curiosity about the world rubs off on them. One of the best things you can do from the beginning is to read with your child.
Find books that spark their imagination, stir up their excitement for life and teach them new things. Make reading time extra special with a personalized children’s book - they’ll love seeing themselves as the hero in their favorite story!
Parenting in the digital age is a blessing and a challenge. It’s our job to help our children navigate an increasingly connected world with a strong foundation of balance, knowledge and happiness.