Screen time is a hot topic among parents these days. While the stats conflict about how kids should be using screens and when they should start using them, a couple things have become clear.
The first is that the number of children using screens is trending upward. Media is more accessible than ever, and video games, apps, and social media all compete for children’s attention. The second is that not all screen time is necessarily negative, as screens open up new possibilities for communication and education.
We’re going to take a look at the health effects of screen time and how parents can use it constructively for their kids, most notably through online tutoring.
What is screen time?
Screen time is time spent using an electronic device with a screen, such as a smartphone, computer, tablet, or television.
As the internet and mobile devices have become more commonplace in everyday life, more people are spending large amounts of time looking at screens. A significant amount of research is going into studying the health effects of screen time and digital media (such as YouTube videos and social media).
How much screen time do most kids get?
According to Common Sense Media, tweens spend an average of 4 hours and 44 minutes per day using screens for entertainment purposes. For teens the number is higher, at 7 hours and 22 minutes per day. That doesn’t include screen time for school or educational purposes.
One contributing factor may be that smartphone ownership among kids has dramatically risen in recent years. For instance, between 2015 and 2019 the number of 12-year-olds with a smartphone grew from 41% to 69%.
Health effects of screen time on kids
There are a host of health issues that have been linked to high amounts of screen time for children, including: sleep problems, reading fewer books, spending less time with family and friends, lower grades in school, weight problems, mood problems, insufficient outdoor or physical activity, poor self-image and body image issues, and fear of missing out.
Young people’s mental health seems to be particularly impacted by screen time. A recent study found that teenagers who spend more than seven hours a day looking at screens are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression. It also found that kids who had high screen time usage showed less curiosity, self-control, and emotional stability.
Another concern is development. Growing kids need personal interaction to improve their social and emotional intelligence, and when kids spend more time using screens, they’re spending less time face-to-face with other people. According to a study done at UCLA on a group of sixth-graders, replacing screen time with human interaction can improve a child’s ability to recognize emotion in facial expressions.
Is there healthy screen time?
Research shows that live video chats are healthier than other sorts of screen time, even educational media. A study demonstrated that young children learning from live video chat sessions with a partner experienced greater social benefits compared to children learning the same lessons from a pre-recorded video.
In keeping with that, current screen time guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics say that video chatting is the one kind of digital media appropriate for infants under 18 months old. This is because other kinds of screen time push social interaction to the side, but with video chatting social interaction is built in to the experience.
Choosing healthy screen time for your child
Apart from video chatting, it’s up to parents to determine what kinds of screen time are healthy for their kid on a case-by-case basis. According to some psychologists, what really matters is the content of what is on the screen, as well as the context under which someone is viewing it.
Screen time can be healthy if there is intent behind it. The important question to ask is, “What is my child gaining from their screen use, and what are they missing by looking at a screen?” Watching an entertaining television show or playing video games can be healthy if you do it as a family and use that time to interact.
It’s also hard to ignore that screen time is essential for students to succeed these days. Kids who are computer literate and tech savvy have an advantage over other kids in our increasingly digital world.
As parents and educators, an important part of the job is to help students use screens as an enhancement to their learning, while steering them away from the “empty calories.”
Online tutoring is healthy screen time
Given the research showing that live video chatting is healthier than other kinds of screen time, online tutoring may be the perfect educational screen-based activity. It comes with two big advantages:
It involves personal interaction with another person
Traditional educational content, like apps or single-player learning games, can’t match the dynamic of working with real people. Tutors can read the emotions and body language of students and respond in a way that games and videos don’t. On the flip side, students develop their social intelligence by talking to a tutor and reacting to what they say.
In the long run, a tutor can help raise your child’s interest in educational content. A good tutor aids parents in finding new and engaging educational content. They also pique a child’s interest, causing a jolt of enthusiasm during tutoring time which can effectively lead them to choose a healthier media diet outside of tutoring.
While an educational game eventually runs out of challenges or levels, a resourceful tutor can always indulge a student’s curiosity.
In a lot of educational media, the student is mostly a passive watcher. In a tutoring session, though, students have to practice with their tutor and use their brains.
It’s important to note that a tutor isn’t merely another schoolteacher, dictating lessons to pupils. Tutors provide individualized instruction, offering advice, feedback, and answers to questions their students might have. Students are encouraged to mirror that level of investment in the work they put into their studies.
Additionally, since tutoring is often one-on-one it can lead to relationships that are broader and more fulfilling than what students can typically expect from schoolteachers. The level of trust that a student and tutor can achieve over the long-term is one of the most valuable rewards of tutoring.
How much screen time is too much?
Several health organizations have released general guidelines for kids on recommended screen time by age. For example, here are the guidelines from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:
- For children under 18 months of age, parents should limit screen time to video chatting with an adult.
- Between 18 to 24 months of age, children should only watch educational programming with a caregiver.
- Between 2 and 5 years old, children should be limited to 1 hour of non-educational programming per weekday and 3 hours on weekend days.
- For children 6 years old and up, encourage healthy screen time habits and limit screen-based activities.
Some signs that your child is getting too much screen time are that their attention span is shrinking, they’re leaving chores half-finished, and they’re ignoring friends and family in favor of screen time.
Control screen time by making a family plan
Many health guidelines suggest parents come up with a family screen time plan that places consistent limits on screen use. As an example, you could say no screens during meals, family time, or 30 minutes before bedtime.
When setting screen time limits, it’s important to differentiate between positive and negative screen use. Time spent on homework or other educational activities might not need to be as restricted as time spent browsing social media.
How can kids recover from screen time?
Just as you can maximize the positive effects of screen time, you can also mitigate the negative effects by including some basic healthy practices and habits in your child’s routine.
Take walks outside
Exposure to outdoor spaces, particularly green space, helps restore depleted attention spans by being both engaging and calming. Greenery provides a variety of other mental health benefits as well, such as reducing stress, improving depression, and boosting mood.
Additionally, being outside can help combat nearsightedness (also known as myopia), which is a rising problem among children. Research suggests that less exposure to outdoor light is one of the driving causes of nearsightedness, so taking a walk around the neighborhood can help preserve your child’s eyesight.
Encourage the 20-20-20 rule
Speaking of eyesight, the bright blue light that many screens emit tends to cause eye strain when people stare at it for long periods of time. A simple way to remember when to give your eyes a break is with the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, take your eyes off the screen and look at an object about 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
One major health concern associated with too much screen time is that it encourages a sedentary lifestyle. Most people aren’t moving much while they’re looking at a screen. Making sure your child gets some active play or exercise will help them gain core muscle strength, develop balance and coordination, and shake out restless energy. Plus, exercise releases endorphins in the brain that help relieve stress.
Executive function is a term for certain kinds of brain processes that are integral to success, such as working memory and self-control. Screen-based media seems to negatively affect young children’s executive function, while mindful awareness practices such as meditation, yoga, and Tai Chi have been shown to increase executive function in children.
During screen time children can be bombarded with all kinds of information, and even if that content is educational there’s only so much it can help them grow. Creative activities help children build brain connections and problem solving skills that most screen time neglects.
Encourage positive screen time with your child
Excessive amounts of screen time is associated with a number of health problems for children. However, you can make screen time a constructive force in your kid’s life by setting limits for its use and introducing positive screen time activities. The most wholesome use of screen time for children tends to be live video chats, and you can make that time extra enriching by scheduling sessions with an online tutor.
Unlike other forms of screen time, online tutoring both provides academic education and helps growing students develop their social intelligence. Tutors can respond to students and personalize the help they provide in a way that educational apps or videos can’t. Good tutors can even help spark your child’s curiosity and get them interested in topics outside of what they would encounter in their school grade.
Digital media devices can be a productive part of your child’s life, and online tutoring exemplifies the best benefits that screen time can provide.