The Technological Tipping Point: When it Comes to Your Kids, Not all Screen Time is Created Equal

Jenna Rodrigues
May 21, 2020

On average, teens spend approximately seven hours per day staring at screens (yes, SEVEN). With social distancing orders in place, we suspect this number has only increased. While there are several benefits that kids can derive from interacting with technological devices such as iPads, smartphones, and televisions, parents need to set active limits both on how often kids use technology and for what purposes they are relying on their devices. If it goes unmonitored, too much screen time may hinder a child’s learning and development in the following ways:

Decreasing the Quality of the Learning Environment

When students try doing homework with their phones next to them, it forces them to engage in multitasking behavior. By switching back and forth between the material they are learning and the social media sites they are scrolling through, they may experience a sub-optimal learning environment and decrease the quality of work that they produce.

What your child might be doing: Watching cat videos when they should be learning to divide fractions.

What your child could be doing instead: Watching a video on Khan Academy on the concepts they learned in class that morning.

Limiting Exercise

Most technology-oriented activities encourage stationary behavior. If kids spend their entire evening interacting with devices, it may detract from time they could have spent on the playground or playing soccer with their friends. While most technological experiences do not involve much movement, the rise of fitness apps and online fitness classes provide an increasingly popular outlet for kids to get moving while they interact with their devices.

What your child might be doing: Scrolling through TikTok dance videos.

What your child could be doing instead: Getting on their feet and learning one of the dances!

Altering the Brain’s Reward System

App-based games and social media can train kids’ brains to become accustomed to instant gratification. Kids learn to take an action such as posting a photo on Instagram and expect instant likes and comments. This alters the brain’s reward system and makes it more difficult for kids to work towards long-term goals over time, where rewards may be less immediate but longer-lasting.

What your child might be doing: Pulling an all-nighter to level up on Candy Crush.

What your child could be doing instead: Allocating an hour each night before bed to work towards a long-term goal.

Spurring Mental Health Issues

While kids may spend some of their screen time doing work for school or playing games that prompt skill set development, they are likely to spend at least some of their time scrolling through social media platforms. Spending excessive time on social media can lead to social comparison, which may make kids feel that they are not good enough or are not as popular as their peers. If kids are exposed to this level of social comparison on a daily basis, it may lead to long-term mental health issues such as depression.

What your child might be doing: At best, chasing the dopamine hits from social media likes. At worst, experiencing social anxiety and depression from social media.

What your child could be doing instead: Using chat-only apps to communicate and build relationships with friends without using social media.

Detracting from In Person Interactions

At nearly every social gathering, there is at least one person who spends the entire night on their phone. Their body is at the table, but their mind is nowhere to be seen. Technology can really degrade the quality of social gatherings and has arguably made it more difficult for kids to build lasting in person relationships.

What your child might be doing: Snagging $20 from you to go to Friendly’s with their friends, only to stay on their phone the whole time.

What your child could be doing instead: Leaving their phone behind so that they can learn how to have conversations that are not constantly being interrupted by Instagram notifications.

Although there are several negative side effects associated with heightened screen time, it is important to remember that not all screen time is created equal. When helping kids to find the right balance between time spent on versus off the screen, we should encourage them to use technology to build the skills they will need to succeed, to aid in developing new fitness routines, to enhance their creativity, and to increase their awareness of global and social issues. Through monitoring both how much time kids spend using technology and how the time allocated to technological devices is used, it will help kids to capitalize on the gains from technological access while mitigating the risk of overuse.

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