Should you increase your kids' screen time?

By:
Aura
5/23/2024
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Kids spending too much time on screens isn't exactly new; after all, most of us were reprimanded for sitting too close to the TV from time to time. But screen usage for today's kids is pretty different from the after-school specials of our childhood.

Screens are now an integral part of learning, socializing, and entertaining. It's easy to feel fearful about letting your kids have too much screen time—we're sure you've heard about the mental and physical effects—but there are positives to screen time, too.

Pros and cons of increased screen time.

First, let's filter out the facts from the fear-mongering. Having no screen time limits can certainly have negative impacts on the well-being of young kids and teens. These can range from kid-specific ("tech neck" from spending too much time hunched over a device) to universal (blue light before bed makes it harder to fall asleep). More time spent online could also increase your kids' potential exposure to cyberbullying—though you can help to mitigate that by having conversations with your family about online safety and digital literacy.

But it's not all bad. There are various benefits to screen time, mostly because so much of our kids' education and social lives are based around screens. When your kids are using their devices, they could be:

  • Learning new facts from educational YouTube channels
  • Experimenting with code through gamified apps (which, if we're honest, is probably more constructive than the HTML hack jobs we all used to do on MySpace)
  • Feeling an increased sense of connection to friends, family, and other loved ones around the world
  • Exploring new ways of creating art with apps—like Procreate—that absolutely put Microsoft Paint to shame
  • Gaining new experiences that help them relate to other kids their age

5 ways to tell if your kids are ready for more screen time.

Increasing your child’s allowed screen time is always a deeply personal decision. What's right for one family may not be right for yours ... and sometimes, what's right for one of your own children won't even be the best (or age-appropriate) choice for their sibling.

These four touch points can help you establish the best course of action.

1. Do a mental health check-in.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, 50% of teenagers experience feelings of smartphone addiction. Before deciding to increase your adolescent’s amount of screen time, talk to them about how their current online activities make them feel. Is it hard to put down their phone? Are they scared to miss a notification? Does social media give them stress and anxiety?

If you're seeing any of these issues, it may be best to work on setting new, healthy screen time rules or social media boundaries before discussing spending more time online.

2. Look for any physical aches and pains.

Excessive screen time may also have physical effects, though you can probably ease these by focusing on ergonomics. If your teen or young child’s devices cause them to spend a lot of time hunched over in bed or on the floor, they may feel achy through their back and neck. Before increasing screen time, you might want to work with them on finding better positions at home for schoolwork, gaming, and socializing online. Once they’re feeling better physically, then more screen time might make sense.

3. Evaluate the quality and quantity of screen time.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ screen time guidelines say that quality is more important than the quantity. If your child spends most of their time online doing schoolwork, consuming high-quality educational content, reading, or talking to family members, then it might not hurt to let them spend some of their downtime playing a video game with friends.

But if your child spends most of their screen time on social media or gaming, you may want to consider only allowing specific types of additional device usage—like video chatting with Grandma on FaceTime or watching an educational video. (Aura's parental controls make it easy to allow certain apps and websites while blocking others.)

The Mayo Clinic suggests turning screen time into a chance for physical activity, too—family dance battle during commercial breaks, anyone?

4. Consider each child's maturity level.

If your kids are old enough to be downloading different gaming and social media apps, think about their level of digital literacy and maturity. How are they handling their online interactions, from the Fortnite waiting room to TikTok DMs? Have you had any concerns about your child sharing too much information online or using apps they aren't supposed to? Is cyberbullying an issue?

The answers to these questions can help you decide if the positives of more screen time outweigh the potential negatives. 

5. Think about potential reward use.

Some parents—and kids—prefer to use occasional boosts in screen time as a reward, rather than increasing everyday time spent online. If your child is interested in more screen time for a job well done (versus, say, money given as an allowance), and you think they'll respond well to an incentive, this can be a good way to make everyone happy! 

If you choose to use screen time as a reward, though, be careful about how you use it. According to a report in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, it can be easy to fall into a "negative reinforcement trap" with kids and screen time. This happens when screen time is used as an incentive to stop negative behavior, rather than reward positive behavior. 

When a negative reinforcement trap occurs, kids may learn over time that if they act out, they receive a valuable reward (screen time). But if you only award extra screen time for positive behavior—like cleaning their room or acing a test—kids learn that working hard and listening to their parents can lead to enjoyable results. 

Screen time limits are a personal decision.

When you're at a point where you feel comfortable with your child's online activities, level of digital literacy, and trustworthiness, it may make sense to grant them additional screen time on an ongoing basis or as a reward. 

After all, electronic devices are a key part of how today’s kids can develop new social skills, learn about new topics, and even feel a sense of connection with the physical community around them. But you know your kids best—and you'll know when it's right for them to spend more time online. 

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