5 Things To Know About Screen Time Right Now

After another round of holidays, it's safe to assume, a lot of children have been diving into more media use than usual. Some may now have new electronic toys and gadgets, or have downloaded new apps and games. Managing all that bleeping and buzzing activity causes anxiety in many parents. Here's a roundup of some of the latest research, combined with some of our previous reporting, to help guide your decision-making around family screen use.

1. Globally, tech brings young people opportunity as well as risk

A new report from the United Nations Childrens' Fund or UNICEF surveys the online experiences of children and youth around the world. They found that adolescents and young people are the most connected generation, while children under 18 represent 1 in 3 internet users worldwide.

Digital resources are expanding access to education and work, and in some places, young people are using them to become more civically engaged.

But, there are serious harms exacerbated by the Internet, especially in the developing world, such as sexual abuse, child pornography and sex trafficking. And in the developed world, there are emerging concerns about the interaction between internet use and mental health issues like anxiety and depression. The key, say the authors of the UNICEF report, is "taking a Goldilocks approach" — not too much, not too little — and "focusing more on what children are doing online and less on how long they are online."

2. Young children are spending much more time with small screens

Ninety-eight percent of households with children 8 and under, rich and poor, now have access to a mobile device, such as a tablet or smartphone. That's up from 52 percent just 6 years ago, according to a nationally representative parent survey from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization.

While children's overall screen time has held steady for years (at 2 and 1/4 hours) more and more of it is taking place on handheld devices: 48 minutes a day in 2017.

3. Families are organizing to put off giving kids phones

Brooke Shannon, a parent in Austin, Texas with three daughters, started an online pledge this year called Wait Until 8th, asking parents to put off giving kids a smartphone until the end of middle school.

"Children just don't have the brain development at this age to be able to navigate the tricky social situations that come with social media," she says.

So far, a few thousand families across the country have taken the pledge.

4. A new study offers a way to measure problematic media use in children

The question of whether screen media use can be a true "addiction" is not yet settled among mental health professionals. But a study released in November in the Psychology of Popular Media Culture tries to get a better measure of problems with screens. The researchers interviewed parents of children aged 4 to 11 about their child's relationship to media and their general well-being. They asked them to respond to statements that are based on an existing measure of problematic internet gaming in adults.

Here are some of the statements that, if true, can indicate a bigger problem:

  • It is hard for my child to stop using screen media
  • When my child has had a bad day, screen media seems to be the only thing that helps him/her feel better
  • My child's screen media use causes problems for the family
  • The amount of time my child wants to use screen media keeps increasing
  • My child sneaks using screen media

5. Screen time limits may have nothing to do with a young child's ability to thrive

Finally, a finding that may cause some relief to parents stuck inside, combating that frigid outdoor weather.

For a study released last month in Child Development, researchers at University of Oxford and Cardiff University in the UK interviewed nearly 20,000 parents of young children aged 2-5. After controlling for factors like race, income, and parent education level, they found limits on screen time over the course of a month were not necessarily associated with positive outcomes in children. On the contrary, the researchers found small links between moderately higher screen use and the children's good moods. The researchers concluded that caregivers, and their doctors, should do a cost-benefit analysis before "setting firm limits."

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