• Don Mackenzie

Teens and Screens

It is pretty much guaranteed to come up at dinner parties, sports events or other places parents and carers meet too much screen time bad for your child? And how much time is too much?

Depending on what you read or who you listen to, chances are you are as confused about the evidence and the advice as much as I am. The research is mixed and controversial as it is based on small sample sizes and not longitudinal. We know doing things in moderation should mean it is less not harmful to us and that we should review our behaviour if it effects our relationships and ability to work, study and function in daily life. This age-old adage also applies to screen time.

However, the proliferation and ubiquity of screens has meant we have not kept up with research and evidence around how they might be affecting us. We do not yet have enough evidence or time yet to see how screens are effecting all of us, particularly children and young people who are at critical stages of brain, language and social development.

Nearly all teenagers, two-thirds of primary school students and one-third of preschoolers have a personal device or screen (Royal Children’s Hospital, 2017). Common issues raised by parents about screen use by their children included: family conflict about putting down the device; lack of physical activity; lack of social interaction; lack of sleep; financial cost; and online bullying and safety concerns.

A child or young person spends an average of 6.2hrs per day on a screen. For advice about achieving a healthy balance of online time and exercise you can read the Australian Government Department of Health Guidelines for Children’s Screen Time. I think it is about the content of the screens, such as play and gaming, social media and education or other learning.

My advice is to be critical and balanced in how you review the evidence, media articles and popular psychology reports about how screen time is affecting the brain and behaviour. Simply demonising screens or behaviours is not helpful to educate children and young people about their sense of agency and control of their behaviour in this space. Content type is often more important to review and consider than how long your child or teenager is spending online. When your child or young person has significant changes in behaviour, mood, or feelings, this may be time to seek help or advice and screen time may just be one factor in what is causing this change.

Supporting the creation and maintenance of healthy and safe boundaries are important across all aspects of child development and screen time is no different. Children and teenagers require help and co-regulation of screen use until their brain has developed capacity to do it for themselves (often not until they reach their mid-20’s). Unregulated and unsupervised screen time may affect addictive traits in children and young people and also reinforce immediate gratification issues. Another important issue to consider as a parent or carer is the social and emotional development of your child and how screen time could be affecting this.

We will see in the coming years how screen time use has changed our brain architecture, structure and function and maybe it won’t be about good versus bad but, like other evolutionary changes in society and technology, it will be about how we adapted to it.

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