According to a 2018 report from the Nielsen Company, Americans in general spend 10-11 hours on their phones every single day. The time we spend looking at screens has increased exponentially over the past two decades, and, for developing minds, it’s a problem.
“In a National Institute of Health study, there are 11,000 kids ages 9 to 10, and they’re planning to follow them into adulthood and look for any repercussions of screen time on their development,” said Dr. Amanda Magrini, a family medicine specialist at Northern Nevada Medical Group. “The scary thing is that they’re already starting to see some results come in, and they’re seeing kids who spend more than two hours a day on screens are getting lower scores on thinking and language tests.”
As the mother of two young daughters, a 22-month old and a kindergartner, Magrini counts herself among the millions of parents who struggle with effectively limiting her children’s screen time. She published a warning about excessive screen time on the Reno Moms Blog, where Bethany Drysdale, mother of an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old, is also a contributor. Jonathan Salkoff, father to a 16-year-old and 18-year-old, contributes to the Reno Dads Blog, and all three have watched their children’s relationships with screen time evolve over the years and have some insight into what has worked for them.
Quality over quantity
According to Magrini, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children under 18 months shouldn’t be exposed to screen time at all, and those 18 months and older should be limited to an hour a day—with parental supervision. For some parents, these goals are difficult and even unattainable.
While it’s easier for Magrini to control her children’s screen time because they don’t have devices of their own, she said she’ll hand over her own phone when her children need a quick distraction—like at meals or in the car. When she does, Magrini said it’s important to make sure her kids are consuming helpful material.
“Other than one or two, just, games, most of the things on my phone for [my oldest] are educational,” Magrini said. “Google actually provides a subscription to a reading app on the phone that helps with, you know, voicing words and learning how to read through that platform.”
Magrini also said the PBS app provides informative, child-friendly content for parents of toddlers. It’s moments when her children have come to expect having the phone, she said, that she’ll go out of her way to engage them in something else.
“Let’s get a coloring book, and let’s color,” Magrini said. “Let’s sing a song together. Let’s play I Spy. She gets into the routine of asking for my phone when we get in a car. … So we talk about her day at school. We talk about examples of people being kind at school and trying to redirect and refocus her on other things.”
For Drsydale and her adolescent kids, social media presents the biggest content nightmare. It’s something she doesn’t allow either of her children to partake in.
“I posted a photo on my own Facebook a couple of years ago of my daughter,” said Drysdale. “It was a really good photo, and she asked me several times, ’Mommy, how many likes did that get? What did your friends say? How many comments?’ … That stuck with me. I didn’t like that she was looking for that validation from something I posted.”
Instead of Instagram or Facebook, Drysdale said she’s happier to see her kids spend time on YouTube, where at least they can learn something new.
“We have found they actually like to watch a lot of, like, instructional videos on YouTube,” Drysdale said. “They like learn how to build things and make slime and all the other just weird stuff that kids do.”
Drysdale and her kids still fight about social media, but when it comes to older children, she said having an honest discussion about her concerns is important—and using examples from her own social media experience helps make her point.
“I have said things I’ve regretted on social media, and I told them that we all have,” Drysdale said. “So we’ve been very honest with them that, once something is out on the internet, it’s there for good. It’s so easy to make a comment on social that you wish you hadn’t made later. It’s so easy to get feelings hurt.”
Most phones and some apps come with built in parental controls, like the iPhone’s Screen Time, which sets daily time limits on any app, but there are also family-specific apps that allow parents to monitor their children’s phones more carefully.
“I have Family Link on my phone, and I installed it on their phones and then connected them all,” said Drysdale. “So, through my phone I can set limits on theirs, and their phones will completely shut off at, like, 10 o’clock at night and won’t turn back on until 6 o’clock in the morning. I have to approve as they download apps … It tracks where they are and how long they’ve been online. So, even during that window of time that they’re allowed to be online, I can see that they’ve been on for an hour, and I can say, ’OK, that’s enough, you know. Turn it off now.”
Drysdale stressed that Family Link—a Google product—doesn’t let her read her daughters’ texts or otherwise invade their privacy, although that’s a right that she reserves, but it does track their whereabouts.
“This came after some questionable text messages that I saw on their phones with some friends,” Drysdale said. “And so they knew that this was coming. I told them, ’Having a phone is a privilege,’ and they were abusing the privilege.”
Magrini also mentioned that parental control apps are helpful for parents who can’t watch their children all day.
“Say you’re a working parent and your child has access to an iPad or an iPhone after school, it’s very difficult to supervise,” Magrini said. “There are different apps where you can, from a distance, control what it is, how much and all of those things. I think it’s important to employ as well when you don’t have direct sight of what they’re doing.”
Terms and conditions
Salkoff’s teenage and adult children’s first phones were old-school flip phones, but he still approached the initial purchase as though he were entering into a contract with his kids—in fact, he printed out a “phone contract” that he found online for them all to sign.
“We made it pretty clear like, ’This is a phone that we are giving to you,’” Salkoff said. “’It’s our phone and we have the right to look at it, and we will control when you have it.’ That kind of thing.”
Having ground rules in place for when phones and screens are appropriate is something all three parents agree on. Designated areas or times when phones aren’t allowed sets clear boundaries to mindless viewing and instills a family culture that screens aren’t always necessary for communication.
“Like not having phones in the room at night was a thing, you know, because it kind of disrupts their sleep, which is definitely true if they’re on their phone late at night,” Salkoff said. “So, what we tried to do is have a place in the kitchen or in a common area that had the chargers … because we would sit down to dinner without them.”
“Our kind of family rule is, ’work first, play later,’” said Drysdale. “On a Saturday morning, they get all their chores done early and clean their room, then I don’t really care what they do. It’s instilling the philosophy of, you know, playing is fine. If it’s playing outside or playing on your phone, it’s fine as long as your work and your responsibilities are met first.”
To Magrini, framing screen time as a reward instead of a default means paying attention to what your children like, and when they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
“I think trying to find out other things that your child is passionate about and use those as reward,” said Magrini. “The reward system never fails, you know, from toddler to teenage. They evolve from sticker charts maybe to some other sort of rewards type system. Just redirecting what you use as a reward and either have that be screen time or not have that be screen time.”
Regardless of what works best for your family, the goal is to be consistent with the boundaries of when screens are and aren’t OK. When your children get older, you can decide as a family which restrictions make the most sense. However, with screens increasingly taking up space in homes and in school, it’s important to not over-police your children—for both your sakes.
“Hopefully you’re giving them skills that they can navigate their real life as they get older,” Salkoff said. “It’s important to just be focused on what the end game is. If you try to police everything your kids do, you’re going to drive yourself crazy probably in the end. You’re not going to necessarily give them the tools.”
Magrini agreed that’s its important to not view every minute of screen time as a parental failure.
“It takes effort,” Magrini said. “And that’s hard because sometimes you’re just exhausted. … As parents, we tend to be very hard on ourselves about everything. …You can’t beat yourself up because I am certain that 30 years ago there was something else that parents were beating themselves up about, you know, they were using to distract their children, and there will just be another thing in 30 years that parents are beating themselves up about that they’re using to distract their children.”