How much tech time should kids have? | YFS Advice

  • Thursday, May 4, 2017 8:56am
  • Opinion

Dear YFS,

I have a daughter in seventh grade and a son in fourth. It seems like we are always fighting about when they can use the computer, iPad or a cell phone. My husband and I set limits on the amount of screen time they get but the whole issue brings a lot of tension to our household. What are recommended guidelines for tech time for kids?

Tech Fedup

Dear Fedup,

Your situation is all too common these days. Some of the most common stressors around kids and tech use are time allowed on screens and gaming or online content. Creating home rules around technology that minimize stress and risks from screen time while maximizing the benefits of technology is possible. I recommend delivering extremely clear guidelines that children understand and that you are ready to enforce — consider a “Tech Contract.”

A good place to start for kid contracts is what many schools recommend: NO non-school technology use Monday-Friday. If you want some time for your children during the week, only allow time beginning in elementary school (30 minutes/day). Middle (1 hour) and High (1.5 hours) School daily use can increase.

Computers and electronic devices provide multiple sensory inputs to a developing brain and create stimulation (fight or flight) that release hormones and cortisol. Most children (and many adults) enjoy the passive pleasure and immediate feedback loop created by this flow of chemicals which leaves them wanting more. Ever wonder why video games can look like they cause addiction in children?

Technology use also engages only specific regions of the brain resulting in lost opportunity for development of other regions. Add this to the fact that the window for brain development is limited — ending in the mid-20s — and the benefits of kids learning cause/effect and social skills from real people and situations becomes clear.

For healthy development, it is crucial that all areas of the brain be engaged equally. The impact of childhood tech use on the ability to focus is also of concern, but still undetermined. However, training a child’s brain to react to every beep, whistle and bang of video games seems to prime the brain for distraction, and potentially hinder learning in other domains.

So, limiting the frequency of tech use is important for many children because it can be self-reinforcing and excessive use comes with developmental risks. However, content guidelines are also critical and generally done based on age or developmental level. Generally, think of being sure that other types of human content get equal billing — painting, writing, sport or playing a musical instrument all require more of the brain to master and cannot be replicated by technology.

There are many guides available on the internet to help parents establish criteria for content appropriate to your child’s age, interest and maturity level. Like movies, common concerns center on sexual and violent content and inappropriate themes/story lines—talk about this with your husband and think about your family values.

Online example of child tech use contracts are plentiful. They provide tips on how to structure a contract including provisions for days of use, time allowed per day, permissible websites, and rules regarding password sharing. The contract should also list restrictions and consequences for rule infractions that you and your husband commit to enforcing.

Like any interest, find ways to join with your child about setting limits, explain why, and learn something from them as well. This firm limits and mutual learning sharing can ease some of the stress of technology can bring to households. Find a way to have fun with it. And then let us at YFS know so we can share this with other families.

Good luck.

Cindy Goodwin is the director of Mercer Island Youth and Family Services. The advice offered by YFS is intended for informational purposes only and to guide you in seeking further resources if needed. The answers to questions are not intended to replace or substitute for any professional, psychological, financial, medical, legal or other professional advice. If you have a question you would like to ask Cindy to answer in this column, or if you need additional professional resources, email miyfs@mercergov.org.

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