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How Screen Time Shapes Kids

Fourth grader Jess Atkins works on an online math lesson on his laptop at his home in Oxford, Miss., Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Leah Willingham)
Fourth grader Jess Atkins works on an online math lesson on his laptop at his home in Oxford, Miss., Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Leah Willingham)

This rebroadcast originally aired on January 28, 2021.

Online school. Virtual playdates. Video games. What does it mean for children that more and more of their world is now mediated through a screen? After the pandemic, how will they transition back?


Anya Kamenetz, NPR education correspondent. Author of “The Art Of Screen Time.” (@anya1anya)

Natasha Burgert, pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Member of the advisory board for Wait Until 8th, a group that encourages parents to wait until 8th grade before purchasing a smart phone for their child. (@DoctorNatasha)

Also Featured

Spandana Pavuluri, sophomore at duPont Manual High School in Louisville, KY.

Vicki Rideout, independent researcher. Founder of VJR Consulting.

Kyla Riccobon, 7th grade English teacher in Berwick, Penn.

Interview Highlights

On measuring average screen time during the pandemic

Anya Kamenetz: “You can talk about the 70% increase in platforms like Roblox. And the ratcheting up of obviously, educational software. So all those platforms are seeing a lot more traffic. But, I mean, I titled my book two years ago, The Art of Screen Time, because time is how we’ve all been conditioned to look at this.

“But I really, really encourage that parents don’t fixate so much on hours in the day, but they think much more about what and how their kids are getting from the technology that they’re using. And then, of course, the ways that it’s not serving them. So it’s really not about time on a device, but it really is about the relationship that you have to that device.”

On how to balance screen time with other activities

Anya Kamenetz: “I always encourage parents to think about their day in terms of the balance that they’re striking. So I really do encourage parents to guard bedtime. I know that there’s a lot of bedtime drift happening and especially with older kids, tweens and teens. So guard that bedtime, keep the devices out of the bedroom, I think is worth making a hard and fast line. Obviously, we all need physical activity. We all need outdoor time. We all need stretch breaks, parents and children. So thinking about managing your day, and then can you get a screen-free meal in, at least once a day?

“You know, a lot of families are eating more meals together, but if we’re all on our devices, we’re missing that conversation time. So, you know, that’s something we really try to keep sacred in our house is, it could be five or ten minutes, honestly, but to have two kids and two parents sitting around the table having a conversation. So really, again, it’s not about policing minutes on device, but it is about what do you want to build into your day, and your rhythms and your balance.”

On separation anxiety from devices

Anya Kamenetz: “I think that we have a really wrongheaded attitude towards this phenomenon, and it’s easy to do because there’s always moral panic to come in when there’s new technologies. It’s very normal for kids to fixate on objects. That’s a transitional object and it’s a very appropriate developmental thing. It’s also very appropriate for kids to love things that are fun and things that are exciting. And digital media is fun and exciting for kids. It just is, and it has been for decades and decades. Television was unbelievable. Far and away the most exciting things for children in the 1950s.

“So the fact that our kids enjoy carrying around devices is not in itself a problem. Even if they have separation anxiety from it. They also have separation anxiety from their beloved toys. Often those toys are based on characters that they love from the media that they love. So if we demonize it, we’re not going to be able to understand it. And what we want to be able to do is help our kids develop self-regulation around things that they enjoy. So not to say you’re bad for liking this or you’re bad for wanting it, but how do we deal with the fact that we can’t eat all the candy that we want all the time?

“Well, you have boundaries and you have rules and you talk about it and you have consequences. And then you deal with it. Hopefully you learn to manage it. And I really encourage parents to treat media in the same way. It’s not radon that’s going to disrupt our children’s brains, but it is something that is very fun, and exciting and seductive. And we all have to learn to manage it in our lives.”

On the addictive nature of technology, and how to set boundaries

Anya Kamenetz: “They are extremely seductive and they are definitely designed to be sticky and to be enjoyable. So the question is how do we help our kids develop self-regulation? And we can do it in two different ways. We can do it by setting boundaries and limiting their access. And we can also do it by helping them develop their own internal self-regulation, which is going to grow over time. It’s going to be different for different kids.

“The difference between an iPad and a slot machine is that an iPad can connect you to knowledge, it can connect you to creativity, and it connects you to other people. So it offers a whole range of benefits that simply being addicted to something like gambling cannot offer you. So I think it’s incumbent upon us to kind of think about all of the complexities of this, because I think that focusing on it as an addictive object alone is not going to give you the full range of possible responses.”

Natasha Burgert: “Like anything that we do as parents, I think we have to look at our kids first. And there are some kids that can do self-regulation super easily. It comes very naturally to them. And they are able to pick up those devices, and able to put them back down in transition from their screen world to their real life world very easily. They’re still able to naturally, continually be interested in other activities and don’t constantly pick it up. There’s other kids, especially in different parts of their brain development, in which the addictive properties of these devices are more effective. And it does become more difficult for kids to develop those self-regulation behaviors on their own.

“It takes a lot of concerted effort from families and parents to really be dedicated to that in order to help kids through that and provide options and provide those boundaries. And for some parents today who are so overtaxed, who are working from home, who are having stress, who are dealing with grief, who are trying to put food on the table, that ask is really hard right now.

“And so I think we have to give each other a little bit of grace as well to say, of course, kids needs these self-regulation behaviors, but we need social constructs in order to help us with that. And right now, like for a lot of kids, their parents are the only ones that they’re really seeing and helping them with that. And the parents are struggling with this themselves. So I think at least with my patients, a lot of that is easier said than done. And so some days are better than others. We can’t do everything. But everyone can do something. So maybe it’s the little small choices that we make every day that matter today.”

How much research is there about screen time?

Anya Kamenetz: “The American Academy of Pediatrics is as evidence-based as it can be, but when it comes to something like a recommendation — no screens before age two — which you may have heard. I talked to Dr. Victor Strasburger, who wrote that recommendation, and he told me straight up, ‘We made it up. We did not have very good evidence at the time.’ They revised that guideline in 2016 to say it’s probably fine to video chat with grandma. It’s probably fine to look at photos together. So there’s a lot of squish in this. And one of the reasons is that if we think something is harmful for children, we don’t randomly assign them to get it in an experiment.

“So we’re not going to have great evidence about the influence of things like social media use on mental health, because we’re not going to do intervention studies where we assign people to use a lot of social media. So we’re left with associations. Associations are very complex and compounded. … I think we have to know our children. We have to watch our children. If we think our children are having symptoms of depression, anxiety, they’re withdrawn, they’re irritable, they’re not sleeping or they’re sleeping a lot. They gain weight. Then we need to watch it. And screens can be a factor in that. They can be the object of an unhealthy kind of relationship or fixation. So it’s an ingredient, but I don’t think it should be the thing that we fixate on.”

On lessons for the future of online learning and screen time 

Anya Kamenetz: “Some fraction of children are going to want to continue with online learning. Because they’re thriving in that setting and they actually prefer the lack of in-person distractions. And others, I think that high schools in particular, I know I was speaking recently to an administrator’s group, and he said, I think that more and more students are going to want a flexible kind of education that spans both online and in-person opportunities to give you more flexibility of time and place and method of learning.

“So I think there is an opening toward more and better kinds of technology that the K-12 has really resisted for a long time. When it comes to our personal use of devices, I don’t think they’re going anywhere. I think we have a chance potentially to develop a more positive culture around them, so that we can bend our use toward the more balanced and the more beneficial. And the less kind of way that we feel shame around our devices or a fixation on our devices because they’re filling a need that we’re not getting elsewhere.”

Natasha Burgert: “I think that the framework and what we see in education is going to be forever changed from this point forward, because of this experience that we’ve had during this pandemic. But regardless of screens, regardless of what the educational piece may look like, as a pediatrician, I just encourage all of my families to feed your kids well, prioritize their sleep, have them do something fun and something that makes them smile every day and look into your kid’s eyes so they know someone loves them and that they are seen. And if you can do those things, then you are going to be ahead of the game regardless of screens.”

From The Reading List

New York Times: “Children’s Screen Time Has Soared in the Pandemic, Alarming Parents and Researchers” — “The day after New Year’s, John Reichert of Boulder, Colo., had a heated argument with his 14-year-old son, James. ‘I’ve failed you as a father,’ he told the boy despairingly.'”

NPR: “Biden’s Plans To Reopen Schools In His First 100 Days” — “Biden has made reopening most K-12 schools a major priority for his first 100 days and he’s signed a flurry of executive orders indicating a much stronger role in federal leadership to do that safely.”

New York Times: “The Upside to Screen Time” — “My 8-year-old daughter started writing stories this year in Google Docs. They are thousands of words long, and my favorite one includes both a full brisket recipe and a murder mystery. She experiments with fonts, looks up synonyms and thinks about the plot even when she’s away from the computer.”

NPR: “Kids Are Anxious And Scared During The Pandemic. Here’s How Parents Can Help” — “For the kids in our lives, the last nine months have been many things. Scary — because an invisible, unknown illness was suddenly spreading across the globe. Maybe even fun, when the possibility of school closing felt like a snow day.”

Columbia Journalism Review: “What the Times got wrong about kids and phones” — “Anyone who’s spent time digging into a specific beat knows the feeling: You’re never going to be thrilled to see a big package on ‘your’ topic in a major outlet. You’re going to have quibbles, at the very least.”

Brookings: “Screen time for children: Good, bad, or it depends?” — “This is not the first time when technological advances have created a virtual riot in homes, schools, and offices. When telephones were first introduced in the late 1800s, debates ensued about whether they would interfere with office comradery and whether clients would find a call more off-putting than a face-to-face conversation.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.