The effects of exposure to video screens on phones, tablets, monitors and televisions has been a topic of study for over two decades now (and even longer when it comes to the effects of TV).

The conclusion is not good. And, at the same time, you have nothing to really worry about. Both are true. Here’s a quick recap.

However

It turns out that screen time, in and of itself, does not appear to be the problem. Even high levels of screen use are not associated with negative behavioral and emotional outcomes (except for a very small association with delinquency and depression).

Wait, what!? Yeah. It turns out that your teens were right when they smugly informed you that, in general, screens (e.g., tablets, smart phones) aren’t inherently terrible. Negative outcomes are much less than originally thought for some (e.g., video games) but still a problem for other (e.g., social media) content on screens. And, unfortunately, media reports on screen use continues to perpetuate the inaccurate idea that screens are inherently a problem for teenagers.

Except

While time on devices with screens are generally not damaging, time spend on specific devices or apps do influence how your teen thinks, feels and behaves. It just depends on the particular kind of screen.

  • Video games.  First person shooter video gaming is associated with greater verbal aggressionand sexism in real life, but mostly for kids who already show problems in those areas of life.
  • Social media. Frequent users of social media (in other words, all teenagers) have a greater tendency for depression, anxiety, poor body image and loneliness.
  • Adult content. And by adult content, that mostly means porn. Our kids are being taught about emotional intimacy, relationships, sexual intimacy and what is important for attracting a mate through porn. The influence is from directly watching it, the social expectations that affect even teens who are not watching it and the way society has a porn-influenced presentation of almost all media, music and advertising.
  • Socialization. Your teens values, opinions, attitudes and beliefs are being shaped by every naïve “expert,” crazed fanatic or “influencer” on the internet. Continually. For seven or more hours a day. Imagine sitting your child in front of any one of these people in your living room to listen and learn from them about how to live a meaningful, productive and happy life. That should terrify you.

So, what’s a parent to do?

With all this time on your hands during the shutdown, it is a perfect time to sit down and review how your family uses and is influenced by screens, devices and the apps they use.

Make them prove it.  Your teen’s smug, know it all attitude that there is no problem spending time on their phone or playing video games is just annoying. Even though you know they will be able to prove their point, make them go through the process of proving it to you with facts (not arguments). Keep sending them back until they come up with legitimate information. They need to learn how to use the internet intelligently and skeptically. They need practice backing up their pre-existing beliefs with actual facts. They need to practice using their critical thinking skills (not their criticizing skills).

“You know, I’m sick and tired of you being on those stupid devices all the time. You need to prove to me that time spent on them is not harmful. You don’t even have to prove it is helpful and productive, just that it isn’t destroying your ability to think and feel. Let me know when you have something to show me. Until then, stay off the devices.”

They will be so pleased with themselves (and smug and superior) when they find they are right. But, at least this time it will be justified. It will be a little happy social isolation present just from you. (Besides, with the references you have in this column they wont tell you anything you don’t already know and they won’t catch all of the problems with specific devices and apps.)

Collect personal use data. The beautiful thing about devices sending all that data to the corporations that own all of us is that we can also get some of that information for ourselves. Sit down with your kid and review the data on how much time they spend on

–      passive consumption (watching videos, reading, listening to music)

–      interactive consumption (video games, browsing the internet)

–      communication (social media, texting, Snapchatting, Instagram-ing, TikTok-ing)

–      content creation (making digital art or music, programming)

Balance. Now that you have some facts and actual data, it will be time to talk about your family rules for screens, devices and media. One major goal of child rearing is to maintain a healthy balance in life between work and play, activity and rest, practical and spiritual. Things can get wildly out of balance when screens are in your kid’s life. Days need to have a combination of productivity, creativity, direct human interaction, sleep, healthy eating and physical activity. Screens are for left over time.  Even then, what videos are they watching?  What are they reading? What are they searching for on the internet? What have they done that is creative? What are they exposed to that will shape their attitudes, beliefs, values and faith?

Boredom. Boredom is a mental state that is important for self-discovery and personal growth. Boredom is an unpleasant state that promotes exploration and interest seeking. Screens have changed the nature of boredom for humans. Your kids no longer seek out something to occupy themselves by constructing something or looking within. They just flip to the next video, reset the game or scan the social media universe for something to distract them (and, inadvertently, shape their self and world view). This shut down has been a dramatic example of this.  Your kid needs to be bored so they can find something fulfilling or interesting to do.  Screens will need to be turned off so this can happen now and again. (For more on boredom and motivating your teen, check out the chapter in Jim’s book Raising Teens in the 21st Century.)

Media Free Zones. There should be some times and some places that devices are not allowed.  These should include, at a minimum,

–      family activities like dinner or movie night

–      hours set aside for sleep

–      homework (except for specific, exclusive use in studying)

–      direct conversation with another live human

Cyber citizenship. Don’t forget to require your kid to be a decent person online. The free-for-all cage fight of the internet can result in kids (and adults) forgetting their manners and civil behavior. The old-fashioned word for this is citizenship.  There are lots of resources for reviewing the expectations you have for your teen on how they should behave in “public” on the internet. Here is a booklet Jim wrote for parents to talk to their teens about being a good cyber citizen.

Creating Your Family Media Use Plan

Luckily, the American Academy of Pediatrics has created an excellent template for creating your Family Media Use Plan that includes most of what we have discussed in this column.  (Unfortunately, you will have to use a screen to access it.)  This plan allows you to add important categories and expectations to create an individualized agreement for your family. They also have a Media Time Calculator on the same site that allows you to lay out how much time should be allotted to important daily activities. The left over time is then assigned to media use.

The isolation during this shut down is going to exaggerate problems with screens and devices (though the challenges associated with screen time existed prior to all this disruption). Start from a position of concern (not fear or anger). Talk to your kid.  Screen time is not the problem. Focus on building healthy and productive activities into their day that will take precedent over screen time. Don’t insist everything change at once. Help your kid recognize the signs of potential problems. You may be surprised to find your teen has already noticed some problems but didn’t really know what to do. A conversation may be just the thing for both of you.

How can I tell if there is a problem?

While screens are not the demonic influence we all thought, screens, especially video games and social media, can affect some teens worse than others. These are some of the signs it is time to take a closer look.

  • Difficulty letting it go or putting it down
  • Prioritizing screen time over other life interests and activities
  • Continued insistence on screen time despite negative consequences
  • Frequent and intense arguments over screen time
  • Negativity, hostility, aggressiveness or intense anger after spending time on the screen
  • Trouble calming down and/or transitioning to sleep or wake following screen time
  • Lack of in person interactions and passing up opportunities to socialize
  • Persistent signs of depression, anxiety, poor body image or loneliness

If your teen is showing any of these behaviors, sit them down and talk to them about your concerns. Point out the specific reasons screens can be contributing to these problems. See what solutions y’all can come up with to change their behavior. If the conversation goes poorly or your kid doesn’t seem to be getting better, it might be useful to consult with a mental health professional for some ideas on how to make things better.