Navigating technology and appropriate screen time for children has become a pressing concern for caregivers and parents. Most people are aware of the negative impacts of excessive screen time, but solving the problem is easier said than done. As a therapist, I frequently see parents struggling with the conflict between wanting to limit their child’s screen time, but wanting to avoid the impending tantrum that will occur when they take it away. Parents of teens often feel conflicted because they know their child’s technology serves as a way for them to connect with their friends, but on the other hand, they know excessive social media use is bad for their self-esteem and mental health. In an era where screens dominate every aspect of our lives, it is important to understand the detrimental effects of excessive screen time on children’s health and well-being.

While addiction to social media, video games and any form of technology is something all ages struggles with, children are especially more susceptible to it because their brains are still developing, particularly in the areas of impulse control and decision making. Exposure to screens and technology can hijack these developing neural circuits, making it easier for addictive behaviors to take hold.

To put it very simply, technology is addictive for the same reason food or drugs are- it activates the dopamine reward system in the brain. Dopamine is a hormone responsible for reinforcing habits. Every video game reward, post or like, text or notification, funny video, etc. floods a person’s brain with a brief, but powerful surge of dopamine. The brain is hardwired to remember this and craves more of it. When we are feeling stressed, bored, or anxious, even in the slightest, we are quick reach for our phones or other technology because our brains remember the instant gratification.

But why does it matter if we use screens to deal with unpleasant feelings? Most people are aware that excessive screen time can cause irregular sleep, problems with school performance, poor mental health and miss opportunities for play, exercise, and meaningful connection. Additionally, increased social media use in adolescents is linked to anxiety and depression. What really concerns me is the impact technology can have on children’s developing brains. Studies have demonstrated that children who spend excessive time on screens experience a reduction in brain tissue in regions responsible for planning, organization, controlling impulsive behavior, and fostering empathy. It makes sense that there is a correlation between excessive screen time and difficulty following directions, inability to finish tasks and difficulty sitting still.

Another reason using technology to cope with emotions is problematic for children is because it robs them of opportunities to develop emotion regulation. Giving children a device to cope with a tantrum is a sure solution in the short term, but it may inadvertently teach them their tantrums will result in getting their favorite device. Children may feel they need a device before bed to distract from anxiety and help them sleep. While this strategy may help them fall asleep, the lights and stimulation before bed actually hinders their quality of sleep. It is important that children experience their emotions and develop other ways of coping, such as sharing their feelings with a trusted person, rethinking the situation, or accepting a situation despite not being happy with it.

Although there are several concerns with excessive screen time, the final one I will discuss is it’s impact on social development. Experts are concerned that increased screen time causes decreased opportunities for face-to-face interactions with parents and caregivers. Even what seems like a minor distraction such as having the TV on in the background or casually scrolling on your phone while playing with your child decreases your responsiveness. This can hinder the parent/child relationship that is essential for healthy attachment and emotional development.

In today’s digital age, limiting screen time for kids is tougher than ever, despite its known negative impacts on their well-being. So, how can parents and caregivers effectively reduce their children’s screen time?

Set clear boundaries: Many of the youth I work with recognize they spend a lot of time scrolling on their phone or playing video games and admit it is not a good thing. Sometimes they even wish they had stricter rules around how often they are allowed to be on devices because they are not able to hold themselves accountable. Some are ambivalent about the negative impact their devices are having on them. Others have tried many times to decrease their technology use, but eventually return to old habits. Children struggle to discern how much time spent on technology is appropriate, and their limited impulse control can make it challenging for them to disengage from their favorite devices. Therefore, it is up to adults to teach healthy habits and set clear boundaries regarding screen time limits.

Give them a reason to get off technology: Don’t get me wrong, it is completely okay for children to be bored. Boredom creates curiosity, creativity and even learning. However, when children complain about getting off their technology, their argument is almost always, “but there is nothing else to do.” If children have other exciting and fun things to do, they will be more willing to put their device down. Explore a variety of activities like board games, crafting, or biking together. Help your children brainstorm a list of their favorite activities. Whenever possible, join in on the fun and participate in these activities with them!

Model healthy technology use: Children learn best from observing. Children often complain that parents spend a significant amount of time watching TV or scrolling on their phone, yet their parents limit their use to one hour a day. We should not expect kids to have more self-control than adults when it comes to technology, or anything. Children model the behaviors around them, especially those around them a lot, such as parents and caregivers. Take an honest look at your own screen time and model the kind of behavior you are hoping they will develop one day.

Understand what their device is providing for them: Have genuine conversations with your children about technology. For many young people, devices are their main connection to friends. Social media offers an easy way to make friends, express themselves, and form bonds. Technology can also help them unwind, cope with anxiety, and feel a sense of belonging through likes and validation. Ironically, these social media sites are the same places that the largest amount of bullying occurs. Understand what needs technology fulfills for them, and explore alternative ways to meet those needs.

If your family is struggling to navigate a healthy balance with screen time, you are not alone. It can feel like a constant battle, but there are many solutions available. Setting clear boundaries, providing alternative activities, and modeling healthy screen habits are just a few options. Understanding why children gravitate to devices so quickly, can help guide us to foster healthier habits and encourage less screen time.

Written By: 
Jenny Valkos, MSW, LICSW, LADC
Individual & Family Therapist
Lakes Center for Youth & Families