Screen Time: Helping Kids Find Balance in The Digital Age

By Dr. Rob Klein, Upper School Learning Specialist
By Dr. Rob Klein
Upper School Learning Specialist
The first iPhone was released in the United States on June 29, 2007. To put this event in perspective, students in Golda Och Academy’s senior class were born in 2000-2001 and most of our middle and elementary school students don’t know what life was like before smartphone technology. Kids of this generation are often referred to as digital natives, born into a culture and society where technology, the internet, portable devices, streaming news feeds, and social media shape the world in which they are growing up.  

As parents, think about your own childhood and how recent technological innovations have changed how kids play, learn, and socialize, in comparison to our own experiences. Remember getting up to change the channel on the TV, talking on the “house phone” that was plugged into the wall, or actually opening a newspaper to get the latest sports scores. My family recently gained back an entire drawer in our kitchen because we don’t need a flashlight, calculator, tape measure, phone book, or notepad any more. (Okay, we still keep gum in there and Post-It notes for convenient reminders, but you get the point.) As Wait Until 8th, an initiative that advocates for delaying smartphone acquisition until 8th grade points out, “Electronic devices are changing childhood for children. Playing outdoors, spending time with friends, reading books and hanging out with family is happening a lot less to make room for hours of snap chatting, instagramming, and catching up on You Tube (Wait Until 8th, 2018).”

As wonderful as smart phone technology can be, finding the right balance between screen time and engaging in the world around us is a critical skill, one which kids need guidance and modeling to develop clear boundaries and healthy habits. A recent article in Forbes Magazine states, “Humans and their smartphones aren’t always a healthy combination…looking at screens for hours a day can have some serious health and mental health consequences (Forbes, April, 2018).”  While adults characterize their own screen time as appropriate, positive and productive (work related, personal/family communication, and for keeping up with the news), they tend to describe kids activities as less valuable: binge watching, gaming and following social media.  

The challenges and concern of internet addiction are a major topic in the news lately.  The American Psychiatric Association (APA) included the category “Internet Gaming Disorder” in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), recommending more research before the condition receives status as an official diagnosis. Formal assessments have also been developed for internet addiction including the Internet Addiction Scale (IAS) and the Internet Addiction Test (IAT), a 20-item self-assessment that measures compulsive use, loss of control, negative consequences and neglecting everyday life (Neuropsychiatry, 2017). One practitioner observed that many of the children he treats, “are impulsive, moody, and can’t pay attention,” noting they suffer from sensory overload, lack of restorative sleep, and a hyper-aroused nervous system. This is not just an isolated observation from one therapist either. Research suggests that extended use of electronic devices impacts the brain’s structural and functional development in regions involving emotional processing, executive functioning, impulsivity and self regulation, decision making, and cognitive control (Psychology Today, Feb 27, 2014).

School administrators and school districts around the world are grappling with implementing policies that are educationally sound while promoting healthy social, emotional and cognitive development. From zero-tolerance to No Phone Zones, schools are trying to enforce appropriate rules which govern use of technology for educational purposes at specific times and places, aligning policy to the rationale of research on overexposure. This past summer, French lawmakers banned smartphones, as well as other kinds of internet-connected devices, for school children between 3 and 15 years of age (CNN 2018).  While enforcing such rules are challenging and burdensome at times, research shows that the slow and deliberate integration of devices into school culture, along with education, support and enforceable guidelines results in short term health benefits and long term sustainable practice (NEA, 2017).

Parents are also mobilizing to influence school policy and culture. After the success of her documentary, Screenagers, Growing Up in the Digital Age, Dr. Delaney Ruston conducted a national survey on cell phone policies in schools and parental preferences. While 55% of middle schools let students carry phones all day, her research showed that 82% of parents do not want their kids using phones at school. Referencing studies about academic performance and emotional well-being regarding cell phones in middle schools, her team concluded that having phones put away in lockers, so the phone is physically off of the students, is the best practice (Away for the Day, 2018).  As an organization, the mission of Away for the Day is based on the basic premise that when students do not have the freedom of accessing their phones during school hours, they are more engaged socially and academically. Wait Until 8th is another parent movement working to collectively align family rules and expectations across communities and hold off on giving kids their own devices until 8th grade. The page on their website titled “Why Wait?”, notes “there is a reason why top Silicon Valley executives are saying no to the smartphone until at least 14 for their children,” citing a top 10 list of concerns parents need to consider.

So as adults, how do we create healthy screen time habits in our own lives while modeling good behavior for our kids? How can we stay firm in our efforts to separate kids from their screens when we readily admit this is the new normal, the reality of the digital culture in which we live? The new Middle School Technology Policy that took effect upon our return from winter break has been met with overwhelming support from the adults in our community.

As we work  together to help our kids find the right balance, we offer the following tips and resources for guidance:

  1. Work to establish a plan with your child.
  2. Have personal and family free-time alternatives to screens at the ready.
  3. Designate screen-free times and zones.
  4. Model good device behavior.
  5. Contract screen time expectations for time, use, and behaviors, including logical consequences.
  6. Consider the Wait Until 8th Pledge.
  7. Encourage “good” screen time.
  8. Monitor and limit screen time (Find the app that fits your need.)
  1. Limit access of gaming consoles and devices.
    • Charge devices in your room and not your child’s room.
    • Block service apps.

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