Studies show that young people use screens in excess. Do the benefits outweigh the concerns of too much screen time?
How much is too much?
For more than a decade, since just about everyone started using cell phones, parents have struggled to get their kids to lift their eyes from the screen.
Now social and medical scientists have data to support what parents have long known — that too much screen time can be harmful.
Just last week, an Australian study done in 2018 shows that bone spurs of an inch or more have been detected at the back of the skull where it meets the neck in more people than expected who are between age 18 and 30. The two researchers suggest “sustained aberrant postures associated with the emergence and extensive use of hand-held contemporary technologies, such as smartphones and tablets” are the cause. The study drew mixed reviews, but it’s true that people who bend their necks forward can develop neck and back problems.
And then there are the social and psychological aspects of prolonged screen time.
In a study published last November in Preventive Medicine Reports, researchers at San Diego State University say that more than one hour of screen time for children aged 2 to 17 is associated with lower psychological well-being.
The study used data from a 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health, conducted by the Census Bureau, which found that increasing amounts of screen time correlated with progressively lower psychological health.
Approximately 20 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds regularly spend at least seven hours a day watching screens, with the average being 3.2 hours, according to the study. Young people who spend many hours looking at screens are more easily distracted, less emotionally stable and have more problems finishing tasks and making friends compared to teens who spend an hour or less on screens each day. (Measured screen time did not include time spent on schoolwork.)
Jean Twenge, the study’s first author, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, said kids who spend a lot of time on screens tend to be less happy than those who engage in activities such as sports, reading or socializing face-to-face with friends.
Heavy screen users in the study were 95 percent less likely than low users to be calm, curious and task-focused, and they argued more with their parents. Heavy users were also more likely to be clinically diagnosed with a mental health disorder.
Teacher Sharon Krasner sees the results in her classroom.
“There has definitely been an increase in lack of attention and sleeping in class,” said Krasner of Oak Park, a teacher for 18 years. She teaches ninth grade and Advanced Placement English at Bradford Academy High School in Southfield.
“Usually when I speak with the kids, I find they may have gone to bed at a reasonable hour; but they stay up for hours playing video games, usually without their parents’ knowledge. They are also more and more reluctant to read anything. Their focus is non-existent.
“My students have a lot of difficulty maintaining social relationships and understanding social cues as well.”
Lynne Golodner of Huntington Woods saw the deleterious effects of too much screen time in the oldest two of her children.
She and her first husband had recently divorced, and they wanted the children to be able to reach either of them easily. So, they gave them cellphones, which seemed like a useful tool, at the end of fifth grade.
The phones helped with communication, but they also had unintended consequences. The children “got into social media younger than both their father and I would prefer,” said Golodner, who manages a public relations agency. “They’d surf on Google and stumble upon sites that were highly inappropriate. They began to care what others thought of them due to social medial involvement.
“I noticed a significant change in them, an almost drugged connection to the phone that they could not imagine relinquishing.”
Now she enforces daily phone-free times, including all of Shabbat. The kids also have to share their passwords and allow their parents to follow them on every social media platform they use. She and her ex-husband decided their youngest will not get a phone until he finishes seventh grade.
Golodner’s older son, Asher Schreiber, said he thinks his parents may not understand the best way to curtail screen usage.
“I think the most important thing to teach kids about screen time is how they can be responsible as opposed to just vilifying screen time or banning it outright,” said Schreiber, 17, a rising senior at Berkley High School.
“I think I am on my phone much less than the vast majority of my friends. I believe a big part of this is because I deleted Instagram and use social media very infrequently because it’s easy to get sucked into a lot of superficiality with social media,” he said.
He thinks social media can be so damaging to teens because it relies on the opinions of others.
“So, this plays off of many teenagers’ insecurities and makes it more likely they will check their phones more often because they want to see what people think about what they’re doing,” he added.
His sister, Eliana Schreiber, 15, a Berkley rising junior, said she thinks her parents are too strict. “Yes, kids are on their phones a lot, but it’s just a part of society now. I think some rules are necessary, just to keep kids safe. I know I’m not any more addicted than anybody else with a smart phone and that includes adults, even though they think that this is mostly a juvenile problem.”
Screen Limits Work
Child psychologist Robin Willner wants to help younger children learn to use screens responsibly. She developed a program she named Screen Time Dragon when her now-adult sons were children.
“Experts in child development believe when children are empowered to create boundaries and self-monitor those boundaries, they are more likely to comply with them,” said Willner, who grew up in Detroit and lived in Oak Park before moving to East Lansing in 1998.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents limit media intake to one hour a day for children aged 18 months-5 years — and say it’s better for them to spend that time with a parent, rather than alone. For children ages 5 and older, the academy recommends a limit of two hours per day.
The Screen Time Dragon kit includes a colorful fabric with two pockets, one designated “unused” and the other “used,” four washable plastic cards and a dry-erase pen. Each card has spaces for parents and children to write in an amount of screen time (perhaps a half-hour) and a monetary value for that time (maybe 50 cents).
When the child wants to watch TV or play a computer game, he or she takes one of the cards and moves it from the “unused” to the “used” pocket. When all the cards have been used, no more screen time is allowed that day. If some of the cards are not used, the child receives the monetary value on the unused card.
Willner, who is co-president of Congregation Kehillat Israel in Lansing, recommends making exceptions for special screen time, such as watching a movie together as a family. Screen time spent on school assignments doesn’t count. She also notes that unused screen-time cards should not be carried over from one day to the next.
She developed the system when her sons Gabe, 33, and Ethan, 29, were in elementary school, long before cellphones became ubiquitous.
“Gabe was not into television and then, all of a sudden, he was addicted to it,” she said. Screen Time Dragon helped him control his television watching. “It worked really well for a long time,” she said.
Gabe, a financial counselor who lives in Hamtramck, says trading screen time for cash made him realize there were better ways to spend his time than watching TV. “I learned to fill my time with books, games and outdoor activities instead.”
He said the program also taught him the value of money from a young age. “Because I had to be disciplined to earn my money, I thought hard about how to spend it, and now my career is helping other people think hard about how to spend their money,” he said.
“I also remember feeling trusted and empowered. My mom wasn’t constantly checking on me to make sure I was abiding by the system. It was up to me to have the integrity to move over all the coupons I used and cash in the ones I didn’t.”
Gabe’s fiancée, art teacher Allison Zeff, designed the logo for Screen Time Dragon and Willner’s friend Melody Stratton of East Lansing designed the kit for commercial sale. Willner and Stratton make the kits in her dining room, which she jokes looks like a sweatshop, with fabric scraps everywhere.
Willner’s long career as a therapist — she has certification in infant mental health as well as a master’s degree in child psychology — has convinced her that unlimited screen time can cause attention deficit problems in children and may contribute to violence in society overall.
As a counselor, she was shocked to see the violent television programs parents would have running during her visits to the homes of her young clients.
“Children learn through their eyes,” she said. “Before they can articulate anything, they understand what they’re seeing. It gets inside and lives there.”
Even good television should be limited, she said. There’s a common misunderstanding that children learn from television and computers, she said. They don’t learn how to stack blocks by moving “blocks” on a screen; they learn by manipulating pieces of wood or plastic. And they don’t learn how to talk by listening to a computer or television; they learn that through two-way conversation with another person.
For details on the Screen Time Dragon kit ($24), contact Willner at ScreenTimeDragon@gmail.com.