From the first time we prop them in front of Play School to scarf down our dinner in peace to when they lock themselves in their room to play Fortnite for hours on end, parents are frequently asking themselves, “How much is too much screen time?”
Whether or not kids can truly become addicted to screens (in the same way we think about addiction to drugs, alcohol or gambling) is still up for debate. But any parent who has ever allowed their child to be entertained by a TV, tablet or smartphone can tell you that once they have a taste of it, they tend to want more.
If you have a kid who’s older than five, I’m sure you’ve heard of Fortnite: Battle Royale. I’m sure you’ve heard about it a lot actually, like every time they open their damn mouth. It’s one of those universal, of-the-moment trends that every first-world child is intimately familiar with.
Dr Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, tells The New York Times that when we take the screens away, our kids come down from a dopamine high:
Pleasurable activities cause the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that sends a signal to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in planning and organising tasks. The message is “do that again, get more of that,” says Dr Christakis. (Dopamine release isn’t specific to screen time, of course. For kids, it could occur when they get praise from parents or eat a snack when hungry.) Then, when parents put a stop to the games or YouTube videos, kids’ dopamine levels drop. “The withdrawal of it is experienced as painful,” Dr Christakis says. “You experience transient withdrawal like you’re coming down from a high.”
Eliminating screens completely, while a lovely notion, simply isn’t practical for most families. Parents of little kids need to cook dinner once in a while, we want more quiet and less “How many more minutes until we get there?” on road trips, and screens are simply a reality of how we now entertain ourselves and communicate with others.
The worst thing about letting my daughter watch a few shows is having to turn off those shows.
At the same time, we still want our kids to play outside and built forts and read books, so there has to be a balance.
That’s why Sarah E. Domoff, assistant professor of psychology at Central Michigan University (along with colleagues at the University of Michigan and Iowa State University), has developed the Problematic Media Use Measurement tool for parents of kids aged four to 11.
If you’re afraid screen use is out of control in your family, ask yourself the nine questions below. Rate your answers from one (never) to five (always). There is no hard and fast “if your score adds up to X, your kid is definitely addicted”, but if you have a bunch of threes, fours and fivess, it’s probably time to make some changes.
1. It is hard for my child to stop using screen media.
2. Screen media is the only thing that seems to motivate my child.
3. Screen media is all that my child seems to think about.
4. My child’s screen media use interferes with family activities.
5. My child’s screen media use causes problems for the family.
6. My child becomes frustrated when he/she cannot use screen media.
7. The amount of time my child wants to use screen media keeps increasing.
8. My child sneaks using screen media.
9. When my child has had a bad day, screen media seems to be the only thing that helps him/her feel better.
To reduce screen time in your home, you might try creating a family media plan, introducing them to podcasts, or even allowing them all the screen time they want — after they’ve done these four tasks. And you can always use the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations for guidance.