Andrew Ledell grew up playing too many video games. His wife, Monaica, grew up watching too much TV, until her dad offered her and her sister $100 a month to turn it off.
Now parents of young girls, the Ledells find themselves trying to limit screen time – much broadened these days to include smartphones and tablets – for their children, while making sure the girls are not cut off from the rest of the world.
“We cut cable because my kids are completely inundated” with screen time, Monaica Ledell said. “You can’t keep them from it.” She noticed that if her 10-year-old daughter was looking at a computer or TV too much, she’d start to get cranky and misbehave.
“I want my kids to be cultured and fit in,” Ledell said, but as she and other parents and experts say – and as most connected people know – it is ever more difficult to find the right balance.
Even as a widely quoted report from the American Academy of Pediatrics written in 2011 discourages screen time for kids under 2 (and that includes exposure to parents on their own screens and to television), and no more than two hours of entertainment media a day for older children, parents who may agree with the advice in principle find it almost impossible to live by.
“It’s virtually impossible to keep my children from an iPad. They’re attracted to it. You really have to work hard to make sure stuff is out of their reach,” said Stephanie Kuhlmann, a pediatric hospitalist at Wesley Medical Center. “Sometimes when you need (a child) to be quiet, sometimes that’s the quickest way to make her entertained. You may have no other option.”
A comparison has been made between our new submersion in technology and the time when cars were new, before there were stop signs and street lights. There’s a lot of movement with little traffic control or signs of dangers ahead. It’s hard for anyone to look up from a screen long enough, to be separated enough, to get the long view. What is needed is more research on the effects of technology, says Marjorie Hogan, a Minnesota pediatrician and an author of one of the reports by the American Academy of Pediatrics on screen time.
In the meantime, if your kids got communications devices for Christmas and you’re suddenly faced with wondering how much is too much screen time, experts and fellow parents have some advice on forming good habits that can last.
“Wanna look at Sissy’s gymnastics?” Monaica Ledell asks her 20-month-old daughter, June, before pulling up pictures of June’s fifth-grade sister, Johanna, on a tablet.
“IPad, iPad, iPad,” June says as she climbs on her mother’s lap. The Ledells limit June’s exposure on phones and tablets to photos and footage of family members, so the images are always of familiar people. That is a strategy that would fit the guidelines of Zero to Three: the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families, a nonprofit dedicated to nurturing childhood development. Its “Screen Sense” guidelines for screen use for ages 3 and younger call for making sure screen content “reflects your child’s experiences in the real world.”
When it comes time for Monaica Ledell to put the iPad away, June cries. But something else catches her eye out the window on a sunny afternoon. “Look Mommy!” she says, staring at a bird flitting about.
The juxtaposition illustrates the rub.
“Screen time is only part of a healthy life,” Hogan says. While the media world is not going away and offers many wonderful things, “we need to define ourselves through relationships with others, enjoyment of the world around us and so on.”
When Hogan hears about a teen talking on the phone while among a group of friends, or kids who have televisions within vision of their beds, or children sleeping with their cell phones on, “a line has been crossed,” she says.
Some question the academy’s recommendation that children under 2 have no screen time, saying that ill effects have not been proven. What is needed is more research, Hogan says, and screens’ effects on the brain are being studied. But some problems with technology already have been established.
Children who are in front of screens rather than doing something active have more risk for obesity, sleep disturbance, and behavioral and emotional problems, Kuhlmann says. And according to the “Screen Sense” report, “while parents generally start out with limits on screen usage for children – one to two hours a day – with the vast majority of the programming being educational, media use tends to increase significantly as children get closer to 5 years old and to include fewer educational media choices.”
In one paper, the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire found that 42 percent of online users ages 10 to 17 had seen pornography, and that 66 percent of those had seen it unwittingly, often as display ads on file-sharing sites.
Experts also recognize that too much screen time can lead to a lack of introspection, a missing out on the undivided attention of others, and expecting immediate results without seeing behind-the-scenes effort.
Kathryn Mahoney is director of Compass Star Montessori School in Wichita, which doesn’t allow its students to bring electronic devices, including smartphones, to school. She says she can tell kids are watching too much TV when they’re talking a lot about a certain set of characters or a particular story line.
“They’re not using their imagination outside those parameters,” Mahoney said. Children instead should be reading and engaged in a broad spectrum of imaginary play, she said.
The trick is finding balance as children age, Mahoney said. And the key is parental involvement, both in gauging how much time the kids should spend looking at screens and helping to pick out content.
Limiting screen time
At the Ledell house, where cable has been pulled, “we do have Netflix, but we limit it,” Monaica Ledell said. “We’ll watch one show once a week.”
Family members also read to one another, and read their own books, together in the family room, because the parents want their children to see them reading.
Ten-year-old Johanna has her own computer with the highest security in place, to watch tutorials that help her do crafts. She has asked for her own Pinterest and YouTube accounts, but she’s been told she’ll have to wait until she can pay for her own cellphone.
The parents also decided to cut back their own screen time, discovering that checking e-mails and Facebook first thing in the morning “is a terrible way to start your day,” Monaica Ledell said.
“We deleted Facebook off the phone. I check it maybe just once a week. … We decided everybody has the same amount of time. It’s really how you spend your time.”
According to the “Screen Sense” guidelines, “research suggests that when parents are distracted by screens, it can lead to negative, attention-seeking child behaviors, resulting in angry and punitive responses from parents.”
There are other ways to limit screen time, such as recording TV shows that you plan to watch so that you are able to fast-forward through the commercials, Kulhmann said.
A strategy that Elizabeth Brunscheen-Cartagena, a family-life extension agent in Sedgwick County, recommends is logging off the Internet throughout the house at night, and having parents be the keepers of passwords. Parents should be aware that there are ways around around the safeguards, however, such as neighbors’ wireless connections that may be unprotected and available. Parents can also collect cell phones and tablets every night, she said. Screens of any kind should be kept out of children’s bedrooms, the “Screen Sense” guidelines say. And as technology continues to evolve, parents must stay vigilant, pediatrician Hogan says.
“Some parents are structuring time,” allowing children to be on devices or watch TV only during a certain time frame, Reiner said. It’s good for families to be off devices during meal time and other family time, she said.
“It’s all about habits and building a habit,” such as taking a walk instead, Reiner said.
Andrew Ledell said that it’s important that his children be prepared wherever they go and whatever they might find themselves looking at.
“The biggest thing is instilling good values,” Andrew Ledell said.
Contributing: New York Times News Service
Internet 101 for Parents
The Extension Service offers a class for parents and grandparents on three evenings to teach them about computers and how to keep their children safe on them. The next session will be April 9, 16 and 23, from 6 to 8 p.m., at the Extension Center at 21st and Ridge Road. The cost is $20 per family (adults only). For more information, call 316-660-0100.