Screen time is a scorching hot button issue between parents and their children: kids can’t seem to get enough while parents struggle to keep it under control. According to Common Sense Media, 59 percent say their kids are “addicted” to their screens, while 66 percent say their kids spend too much time on screens.
Even at a very young age, the amount of screen time children crave is rapidly accelerating. Mobile media time for zero-to-eight year-olds has tripled between 2013 and 2017, from an average of 15 minutes per day to 48 minutes per day. What’s more, this craving continues to rise at this crazy clip as kids age: another infographic revealed tweens log an average of four hours and 36 minutes of screen time per day, while teens spend an average of six hours and 40 minutes on a screen. One has to wonder if these kids are forsaking sleep for phone-induced FOMO.
Mobile media time for 0-to-8 year-olds has tripled between 2013 and 2017, from an average of 15 minutes per day to 48 minutes per day.
A primary challenge in policing screen time is hypocrisy: it’s awfully hard to set and enforce limits if you don’t abide by any yourself. Jeremy Horwitz, author of VentureBeat, who covers Apple, AI and Tech news, agrees this can be challenging. “My wife and I use our iPhones and iPads for work, reading news, communicating and more. Once you decide to give up your conventional home ‘land line’ telephone, traditional cable TV and big desktop computer in favor of a portable device, that device tends to get used for many important things and become hard to put down,” Horwitz admits.
David L. Hill, MD, FAAP, adjunct assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and program director of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media, says too much screen time can be unhealthy for both younger and older children. “The clearest concerns regard sleep and obesity, but there are also concerns regarding aggression, mood and displacement of other healthier activities,” Hill told NBC News BETTER.
So what can parents do to better control their kids’ screen time?
1. Set clear limits
Anya Kamenetz, author of The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life, a mother of a six-year old and a toddler, monitors her own kids' screen time quite closely. “In our house video watching is a Saturdays-only activity for the big girl,” she said. “Having clear rules works well for us at this age. During the week she gets three iPad sessions of 20 minutes to half an hour. We also have exceptions like travel, vacation and sick days, but even on screen days we make sure to balance with other activities,” she says.
When kids get older and need laptops for schoolwork, it’s common for limits to get more fluid. “I have three children and two stepchildren, and screens are a huge part of all of their lives,” says Hill. In his home, family meals and bedtime are screen free, social media use is monitored, and he is “constantly assessing” how screens affect his children’s grades and moods. “It’s always a work in progress,” he admits.
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Need help getting your head around when and how to set limits? You can create an action plan that works with your family's lifestyle by using the American Academy of Pediatrics' Family Media Plan.
2. Teach them to prioritize
Horwitz softly bans devices from his two daughters, aged nine and seven, until all that needs to get done is done. “On a school day, our schedule is no iPad or TV until after homework is completely finished, a little free time, then no devices during dinner, a little more free time, then no devices or TV until a list of chores is complete. We put a hard stop on iPad and TV at bedtime,” says Horwitz.
It’s hard to tell a teenager not to keep a tablet in her bedroom overnight if you didn’t start that habit when she was in grade school.
3. Practice what you preach
With her young children, Kamenetz leads by example — and indulges in a little subterfuge. “I try to make sure my kids are absorbed in another activity before I quickly check my email. I leave the phone in another room during the morning and bedtime routines,” she says, adding that clear limits now can only help later. “It’s hard to tell a teenager not to keep a tablet in her bedroom overnight if you didn’t start that habit when she was in grade school,” she adds.
Kamenetz says it’s just as important to discuss why limits are necessary. “We can share strategies around things like productivity and focus. We can model our homes as a haven and decompress with occasional and regular screen-free times. We can share our concerns about real-world consequences we observe, from loss of sleep, to online drama and bullying,” she says. “I have adopted the practice of verbalizing why I am picking up my phone, as in ‘Let's check the weather.’ This helps kids understand that you are not just ignoring them and reinforces the idea that we should have a purpose when picking up our phones,” she explains.
When your kids get older, Hill recommends collaborating with them to set expectations, writing them down and revisiting them as necessary — the American Academy of Pediatrics even has a tool for it.
I have adopted the practice of verbalizing why I am picking up my phone, as in ‘Let's check the weather.’ This helps kids understand that you are not just ignoring them and reinforces the idea that we should have a purpose when picking up our phones.
4. Enforce the rules
Broken rules require consequences — like repossession.“We’ve tried everything from physically removing a TV from our family room last year, to locking down the kids' iPads with parental restrictions last week,” Horwitz admits, adding, “The most effective thing I’ve done is to take physical possession of the iPads at night, but even that is challenging, because the kids now use their iPads for wake-up alarms.”
High schools across the country are beginning to explore ways to prevent smartphone abuse on campus. According to a recent NPR story, some are starting to use Yondr pouches to secure them until the end of the day.
In the not-too-distant future, help may come through the device itself. Horwitz believes parents will eventually have “granular parental controls” in smartphone operating systems or “permitted,” “limited” and “impermissible” apps and web sites. “Parents should be able to allow unlimited access to some content — say, books, news or educational apps — while providing time- or content-limited access to others, and specifying others that are not allowed. iOS has some of this now, but certainly not enough,” he says.
Even so, it’s well worth setting limits when it comes to screens. “As our kids become adults, they’ll be surrounded by more and better technology than we could have ever imagined when we were children,” says Horwitz. “Screens of various sorts will be everywhere. I would rather teach my children how to utilize technology and properly manage their screen time now, than leave them at a disadvantage as adults.”
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