Like most parents raising children today, Matt and Keri McKinsey know the importance of limiting their kids’ “screen time.” But when the Navy couple took away smartphones and iPads at bedtime, their 10-year-old daughter outfoxed them.
“It’s been really hard because the kids push and push,” Keri McKinsey laments. “We would put our middle daughter to bed. She would wait until we fell asleep and then would sneak into our room and take her iPad or my phone and stay up all night playing on it. For a week, I was wondering why she was such a pill to wake up to go to school in the mornings.”
Welcome to parenting in the digital age.
Now an ongoing study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) testing how screen time affects children’s brains should set off alarm bells in households across the country. The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study is following nearly 11,900 children, currently are 9 to 10 years old, as they grow up attached to smartphones, tablets, video games, computers and TVs.
Initial results show those children who spent more than two hours a day on screens scored lower on language and thinking aptitude tests. Those using electronic devices more than seven hours a day had an earlier-than-expected thinning of the cerebral cortex of the brain. Since the data is preliminary, scientists do not yet know whether these changes are permanent or meaningful. But they are worried about what the next decade of research might reveal.
“In many ways, the concern investigators like I have is that we’re sort of in the midst of a natural kind of uncontrolled experiment on the next generation of children,” Dr. Dimitri Christakis, who helped develop the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines on screen time told “60 Minutes.”
The NIH study adds another layer of evidence to reports showing excessive screen time boosts the risk of obesity, can cause sleep disturbances and eye strain and interferes with both play activities and child-parent interactions.
In 2010 when the iPad debuted, 28 percent of parents surveyed by USC Annenberg’s Center for the Digital Future stated their children spent too much time online. Last year, 43 percent of parents raised concerns about the amount of time their children were on the internet. The average American now spends 22.5 hours per week online, frequently via a smartphone or tablet.
Katie Davis, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Washington Information School, says there are legitimate safety reasons for parents to provide children with cellphones, but she wants parents to recognize when the line between responsible use and unhealthy use becomes blurred.
“If it gets in the way of sleep, if it gets in the way of homework, if it gets in the way of social relationships, then we’re starting to look at problematic cell phone use,” she says. “Whether or not that is addiction, I’ll save that for the psychiatrists.”
McKinsey admits she is concerned about her children’s attachment to their devices and the amount of time they spend in front of a screen.
“I notice my kids spend way too much time on their digital devices,” she says. “Even after dinner tonight, my daughter has her cellphone constantly glued to her and she’s constantly checking in and looking. Instead of watching TV or a movie now as a family, everyone is off in their own room watching their devices and their Netflix or what have you.”
Once one child in a household has a smartphone or iPad, the floodgates to the digital world often open for younger siblings. McKinsey notes her five-year-old son began using an iPad because his big sisters did so first.
“I let him start using iPads because his sisters were on theirs, but if his favorite cartoon wasn’t on yet and he was whiney, I would let him put it on [the iPad]” she said. “He gradually started using it more and more. Now if I take it away or say no, he throws the biggest fit.”
McKinsey is not the only parent to unwittingly open up this digital Pandora’s box. Smartphones and other devices are designed to be addicting. They entice us using push notifications, bright colors, bells, swoosh sounds and instant gratification.
“Pulling a lever on a slot machine and pulling to refresh on a phone are very similar actions,” states Catherine Price, author of How to Break Up with Your Smartphone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life. “On the phone, you don’t know what is going to be waiting for you when you reach for it, which makes you reach for it even more. Most of the time when you pick up your phone, there is the something there that stimulates an emotion or in some way makes it feel like it was worth checking, even if it is the alleviation of anxiety from not checking.”
Price knows firsthand parents often fail to model healthy digital use. Her wakeup call came during the middle of the night. Price was feeding her daughter when she noticed the baby staring directly at her while she stared blankly at her phone.
“I had this vision of what I looked like from the outside. It made me sad to think about what she may be observing,” Price said.
Educators also have expressed concerns about the impact smartphones and other digital devices have on learning, from distracting students while doing homework to reducing play-based interactions. One teacher, a retired Navy spouse, suggests computers have created a creativity crisis in today’s generation of children.
“When I was first teaching, we would do a mind map–recreate a story using only pictures. My kids would produce these amazing works of art that they would be excited to spend time on,” said the elementary teacher in Kitsap County, Wash., who asked to remain anonymous. “Now 15 years later, my students don’t care about that kind of stuff. It isn’t part of what they want to do. The ease of having images shipped to you rather than having to produce them is making a lazy society.”
So, what is a parent to do? The McKinseys have tried all the usual remedies to decrease their children’s screen time. At various times, they have banned cellphones at the dinner table and bedrooms, changed passwords on devices and attempted a multi-week break from technology.
“For us as parents, it’s hard to find what will work to get them to be less addicted to it,” Keri McKinsey says.
Price offers these tips for reducing screen time:
- Find activities, such as hiking, reading, board games, bike riding, cooking, etc., that you and your children would like to “spend more time doing in the limited amount of time in life.”
- Have each family member put their phones or other devices “to bed” in a basket. Anyone caught cheating, including adults, pays a penalty that goes toward a group activity.
- Replace phones and other digital devices in bedrooms with alarm clocks.
- Make your phone or other device less appealing by switching the screen color to grey scale and turning off notifications.
- Redesign your phone or tablet so only tools appear on the home screen.
- Activate text messaging auto-reply and do not disturb while driving features.
Enforcing screen-time rules, however, can be especially challenging for military families who often have only one parent manning the home front.
“If I had held my ground, maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation. But at the same time, when your husband has been gone for three months and you are trying to hold it together until he gets back, it’s hard,” McKinsey says. “When they are gone, I pick my battles. It’s not that we’re bad parents. It’s that we’re trying to survive and make it through.”Read comments