Screen Time, Social Media, and the 21st Century Child

As our smartphones, tablets, and laptops become virtual extensions of ourselves, it can be difficult to know how to set boundaries. A quick scroll through our email at the dinner table can seem harmless enough, but when does our obsession with our devices go too far? And how can too much screen time and social media use affect our kids? We asked several child development experts about how to maintain a healthy, balanced relationship to screen time and social media.

Dr. Fadi Haddad, child and adolescent psychiatrist; Meeting House advisory board member

On Social Media

It has lots of positives and negatives. One of the biggest problems is that kids can bully each other and cause profound pain to each other. At times, they do this anonymously by creating a Facebook page of a person who does not exist, and then attack their peers. On the positive side, marginalized kids are able to find support and friends with similar interests via social media.

The real questions are: How do you monitor social media? And how do parents discuss these issues with their children? As an example, one of my patients told me she felt very angry with her daughter posting on Facebook, so she closed her daughter’s account — only to find out later that the daughter had five other accounts she didn’t know about. I wish the mother had been more open about discussing the issue with her daughter, and had explained that every person makes mistakes and that she is there to help. That approach could open a road for dialogue and leave room for monitoring her daughter's posts and all other accounts. Shaming and guilting kids is not very helpful, while openness invites more honesty and allows you to be part of your kids’ lives.

 On Screen Time:

Screen time should be monitored, too. There are lots of educational activities available digitally, but when a child is consumed by their devices all the time, it can prevent real socialization — namely developing the skills needed and learned through socialization. Earning or losing screen time could be used in shaping behavior. So, monitoring the material on devices and the amount of time devices are used, could be very helpful for the child.

Cindy Puccio, child therapist; Meeting House advisory board member

On Screen Time

For younger kids I advise as little as possible. I think that some of the TV programming for younger kids can be great, but in terms of devices, the less the better —  and none is best. We need to remind ourselves that for a younger child, the world around them is interesting and entertaining enough. There is no need to give a young child a device while they are, for example, at their sibling's sports game, eating at a restaurant, or riding on the subway. The sports game, the meal, and the train ride ARE the entertainment.

I also think it’s important to have rules concerning the devices that everyone in the family follows. Ideas like not using a device at the table during meal times AT ALL. The point is that the meal is the activity. There is no need for additional stimuli. What I also recommend to parents, and do this with my own kids, is to have an identified place in the kitchen where everyone puts their phones/devices. That’s where they stay unless you need to use it. So, if you need to go check your texts, you go check your texts or your email, but then the device gets put back in the designated spot, so there’s not this addictive feeling of the phone as an appendage that stays with you, on your person, at all times. It is a device to use, not one that is attached to your body.

What’s also nice is my son knows that if I find his phone elsewhere in the house, I just put it back in the designated spot. But he also has to stick to his end of the bargain, which is that if he is not using the phone, it needs to go back where it belongs. This can prevent power struggles and clarify expectations. In this way, it’s actually helpful to him to because he always knows where his phone is, but he cannot carry it around everywhere.

 Dr. Laura Tagliareni, pediatric neuropsychologist Meeting House Advisory Board Member

On Screen Time

The issue I see with my patients: There are many kids who are so consumed that they don’t want to engage in other tasks, like homework, because they’re glued to their games or screen time. The balance, in that, is intricate and hard to find. It depends on your child. There are certain types of children — especially those who have developmental delays — for whom devices can help them communicate. So texting is a lot easier for them than picking up a phone, as they may not understand all the nuances of language yet.

The monitoring is important, and I don’t think some kids are being monitored as well as they should be. It is tricky, especially with kids who have a hard time regulating, as they can be overly-focused and hyper-focused on things like video games. Some children have the ability to regulate and to know when it’s too much. Not everyone has that set of skills.

Every child is so unique and has their own line of strengths and weaknesses: The intervention has to be really specific based on the child’s set of needs and capabilities. If I saw a child that has a lot of anxiety, and uses screen time to relax and feel in control, that’s a productive use. But it can also become a crutch. I’d work with the parents to make sure it’s within a manageable timeframe, and make sure it’s not used a default activity. You come home, you do your homework, and then you can have a few minutes of screen time. Some families don’t allow any screen time during the week, which I think is fantastic, and then they hold it for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It’s what a family feels is appropriate and what works for them. You can never work with the child and not the whole family.