8 Tips for Raising Healthy Kids in the Age of Screens

The scene of a parent reading a bedtime story to a toddler is familiar and timeless. Then you notice something that tells a new tale; the child reaches out a dimpled hand and tries to swipe and tap the page as if it were an iPhone screen. Instances like this signal a new era in which young kids can navigate an iPhone or computer more intuitively than many adults. If you look around, you’ll find that today’s kids may be wired first for technology and second for the physical world.

With training from an early age, this generation will no doubt be much more fluent in new technology than those of us who adopted screens later in life. There are very real concerns, however, about how screen time can affect children’s development. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises parents to avoid screen time for children under 18 months old who are just learning to navigate their physical surroundings. When it comes to older children and teens, opinions vary about how we should be managing our kids’ (and our own) relationship with these extremely useful yet addictive devices. We’ve asked child psychologists to weigh in to help us make sense of this unusual challenge.

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1. Moderation Is Key

"Screen addiction is like other addictions—but we can't treat it in the same way. Unlike drugs or alcohol, you cannot abstain from screens. It is more like food, where we need to help people develop a healthy relationship and learn limits. Here are some suggestions: Acknowledge that it can be fun to use these devices and that they are a huge part of socializing and connecting with peers. Let them know that we want to help them develop their 'muscle of moderation,' as l like to put it. Willpower is an important life skill!" -Dr. Edward Hallowell, psychiatrist and ADD & ADHD specialist in Arlington, MA

2. Touchscreens Help Under-Privileged Kids Learn

A 2014 survey of more than 1,000 parents of preschoolers found that low-income children were twice as likely to read stories on a daily basis when given access to a touchscreen device. "Technology can actually be an easy route into promoting reading,"' said Dr. Jason Eckerman, psychologist and ADHD specialist at Impact Psychology in Minneapolis, MN. The survey also found that all the kids enjoyed reading more when given access to both print and touchscreen books and were more likely to outperform the expected standard for their age.

3. Tech Is a Privilege

"When it comes to cellphone use, be clear on who owns the phone. The phone is a privilege. It is a very big responsibility and like everything else, freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. Part of being responsible is monitoring your time and use of the phone. Be clear from the beginning that if your child is no longer being responsible, they lose the freedom to have a phone, and because it’s your property, you may take it back." -Dr. Edward Hallowell

4. Practice What You Preach

Let's be honest, kids are not the only ones vulnerable to the addictive qualities of screens. In fact, according to the latest reports from Nielsen, American adults spend nearly 11 hours each day parked in front of a screen, whether that's a computer, the TV, a tablet, or smartphone. So if you tell your kids that no phones are allowed at the dinner table, make sure you're not breaking your own rules. "Remember that your childrenare always watching you,” advised Dr. Edward Hallowell. "Are you putting down your devices to connect with your world?"

5. Gaming Linked to Higher Test Scores

Our devices hold the gateway to any type of content imaginable. Because of that, it doesn’t make sense to classify screen time as either good or bad. A good example of this is a 2016 study in the International Journal of Communication that found that Australian teenagers who regularly gamed also scored better in math, reading, and science. But according to computer psychologist Dr. Tim Lynch, the value all depends on the quality and content of the game. “Time spent playing games can be beneficial or not depending on the content,” said Lynch. “We need to be aware of this and make sure that our kids get exposed to positive interactions, limit the neutral ones, and eliminate the negative ones.”

6. Protect Your Child's Creativity

“Often the internet sites that kids frequent include a constant rating, evaluation, or critique of their personal pictures and posts,” said Dr. Chinwe Williams, a counseling professor at Argosy University in Atlanta, GA. “Excessive critique diminishes creativity, originality, and individualism of some youth. They lose insight of their opinion because they are seeking a certain level of approval.” By seeking out content that inspires you toward a personal goal, starting your own blog, and blocking or unfollowing critics as needed, Williams said kids can help minimize the negative effects of the internet while enjoying the benefits.

7. Prioritize Face-to-Face Interactions

A recent UCLA study indicates that an increase in screen time is related to limitations in social skills. In the study, researchers gave two groups of sixth-graders a test that measured their understanding of emotional cues. The group that attended a five-day nature camp scored higher on the test after their time away from digital media. Dr. Eckerman underscored the importance of learning these nonverbal cues. "When you're in conversation with others, it's important to be able to read people's facial reactions and see how they respond when you're talking with them. It gives you a helpful piece of feedback, so you can make adjustments depending on how other people are reacting," said Eckerman. "This is why I typically recommend that parents draw some sort of boundaries around cellphone use at home. If you have family dinners together, this is a great opportunity to have everyone put their cellphones away and learn more of those nonverbal cues that are so essential when interacting with others." However, not all digital media is bad for social development. In fact, developers have created smartphone apps specifically to help teach kids with Autism non-verbal skills. "Apps that help kids identify and label facial expressions and read other non-verbal cues, like body language, are a really cool way to help children with Autism progress in those areas," said Dr. Joe Dilley, author of The Game Is Playing Your Kid and psychologist in Los Angeles.

8. Screen Time Gives Parents a Break, and They Deserve It

You may have heard of the term "screen time shaming," where people make parents feel judged for allowing their kids to use technology. Whether you firmly believe in the benefits of screen time or just need a break from the incessant demands of parenthood, you can find ways to stop the haters in their tracks. "I always tell parents that they have to do what makes sense for them and their family," said Dr. Jason Eckerman. "If other parents or adults make judgments about your child's screen time, I generally frame it in two ways. First, it's becoming clear that technology is going to be playing a major role in our children's lives as they grow older, and one of our jobs as parents is to prepare them the best we can for the future. Second, while there are plenty of benefits, you can acknowledge that you understand that technology can have negative effects in certain areas of development, but share what you're doing to promote development in those areas. If you're concerned about devices shortening their attention span or social skills, talk about how you like to play games as a family that promote those skills. People are generally more understanding when they see that there's intention behind your decision." 

Screen Time Guidelines

18 Months and Younger: 

The AAP recommends no screen time for infants and toddlers who are at risk of being over stimulated by the bright lights and sounds from digital media.

18–24 Months:

The AAP says you can carefully introduce media to older toddlers, focusing on high-quality, slow-paced content with no ads.

2–5 Years Old:

Children in this age group should be limited to one hour of media per day.

6 Years – Teens:

While the AAP used to cap its recommended media time to two hours per day, its most recent recommendation is to leave media use under the supervision of parents, who should make sure screen time is not replacing any other components of a healthy life.

TIP! Video Chat with Toddlers: 

Surprisingly, the one exception to the AAP's no-screen-time rule for kids is video chat. Since FaceTime or Skype interactions are happening at a life-like pace, pediatricians say video calls with family and friends can be a positive tech experience for infants and toddlers.

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Donna Cleveland is the editor in chief of iPhone Life magazine. After a stint as a newspaper reporter, she became web editor at iPhone Life, where she continues to pair her penchant for storytelling with her love of Apple products. Donna holds a masters degree from the University of Iowa School of Journalism & Mass Communication. She also co-hosts the feminist podcast Women & Radio.