Is excessive screen time actually a main cause of negative outcomes in children?
One of the most comprehensive studies on the subject found that in more than 350,000 adolescents, technology use was associated with only 0.4% of the overall differences in adolescent mental well-being.
And as much as we wish we could, we can't completely shield our kids from screens.
While researching for my parenting book, I found that the most successful parents don't spend time worrying about how much time their kids spend on digital devices.
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Instead, they teach these three skills to help their kids become "screen smart":
1. How to evaluate media
Research and explore apps, games and websites with your kids. Read the user agreement and reviews together, and share any values and concerns you have with each other.
If an app or website looks like a scam, or like it teaches bad values, discuss why you feel that way and how that would impact your decision to spend time on it.
These conversations will educate them on what responsible media use looks like.
2. How to draw screen boundaries
If you feel you have too little control over your kids' screen use, or you want to establish some rules and expectations, consider sitting down for a family meeting to create a digital road map.
You can come up with guidelines that create a balance, teach your kids how to use their screens constructively, and help avoid some of the unhealthy effects that can crop up.
You might want to discuss things like:
- To minimize sleep loss: Will you have a "media curfew" after which all portable devices have to be downstairs in a central location?
- To minimize safety concerns: Where will kids be allowed to use their devices? Will parental locks be installed on devices?
- To minimize fights: Will your kids need to ask you permission before they use screens?
Allow your kids to include their input and share how your technology use will fit into the roadmap, too.
3. How to use screens for good
Teach your kids that screens and technology are not categorically "bad" influences. They can be tools for connection, learning and growth, too.
I'm pretty sure my son learned to read in part because he was obsessed with the app Endless Alphabet when he was a preschooler. During the pandemic, he spent much of his screen time playing online chess and coding on Bitsbox, both of which taught him helpful skills.
Download educational games and apps for your child, and encourage them to reflect on whether or not they're using their tech for good.
After they spend time on their phone, ask: "What did you learn?" or "Who did you talk to? What's going on in their life?"
Screens are a tool, and like any tool, they can be helpful or harmful depending on how they are used. Our goal as parents should be to help kids learn to use them in healthy and constructive ways.
Melinda Wenner Moyer is an award-winning contributing editor at Scientific American, a weekly contributor to The New York Times, and a faculty member at NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. "How to Raise Kids Who Aren't A-------" is her first book. Subscribe to her newsletter here.
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Adapted from "How to Raise Kids Who Aren't Assholes" by Melinda Wenner Moyer. Excerpted with the permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons. Copyright © 2022 by Melinda Wenner Moyer.