Smartphones, tablets and video consoles can be addictive. They interfere with sleep. They draw kids into an alternate universe, often distracting them from more productive — and healthier — real-world activities. And they are linked to anxiety and depression, learning disabilities and obesity.
That’s according to a growing body of research emphasizing the physical and psychological dangers of heavy screen use.
“Nobody should spend eight or nine hours doing anything except sleeping and working,” says Dr. Sina Safahieh, medical director of ASPIRE, the teen mental health program run by Hoag Hospital in Orange County, Calif.
Yet for many teenagers, mine included, cellphones and social media are also indispensable tools for planning their social lives, keeping up with schoolwork and staying in touch with out-of-town friends and relatives.
I recently talked to Samantha Dunn, a former journalism colleague, who spoke glowingly about her 10-year-old son’s use of digital technology in the pursuit of knowledge. Her son, Ben, became curious about the American Revolution and the British Empire after listening to the soundtrack to the musical “Hamilton,” and he used his mother’s smartphone to research them intensively.
Ben’s fascination with the Marquis de Lafayette, the French nobleman and major-general who helped win the Revolutionary War, motivated him to learn French. So, he downloaded the language-learning app Duolingo and got busy. “I genuinely think he has learned a love of languages,” Dunn says.
But she says she and her husband, Jimmy Camp, are embroiled in an ongoing battle with Ben because they won’t let him get “Fortnite,” a popular video game that involves a lot of killing but also serves as an online venue for friends to talk about what’s going on in their lives.
“We said no, and it was like, oh, my God, we had ended his life,” Dunn says.
How can parents optimize the constructive uses of screen-based technology while minimizing its pernicious effects?
The key is helping kids use technology as a tool, not a toy, “where there’s some purpose other than the medication of boredom,” says Jim Taylor, a psychologist and author of the book “Raising Generation Tech: Preparing Your Children for a Media-Fueled World.”
Taylor, like many other medical and mental health professionals, advises parents to set limits and stick to them. They should restrict the amount of time their kids spend on devices, create tech-free zones — no cellphones in their bedrooms, for example — and tech-free times, such as at the dinner table, in restaurants and on family outings.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding almost all digital media use for kids younger than 2 and limiting it to one hour of “high-quality programming” for children between ages 2 and 5, with a parent involved.
And by behaving the way they want their kids to, parents might be helping themselves, too. As Aboujaoude notes, adults have felt “deceptively immune” to the ills associated with digital media. “They are not.”
Chad Landgraf, 44, of Broken Arrow, Okla., told me he was worried about how detached his 12-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter became when they were on their devices. So, hoping to set an example, he switched from e-books to old-fashioned print.
“When I had my Kindle or iPad open, they didn’t know if I was reading or surfing the ‘net,” Landgraf says. “But at least if I have a paper copy of a book, they know I am reading. Modeling seems like the easiest way. Monkey see, monkey do.”