How to build healthy screen habits for kids and teens

The technology landscape changes every day, making it more and more challenging to navigate. On one hand, with more devices and more media than ever, you and your family have endless opportunities to connect, learn, and create. On the other hand, many risks come with screen use (and overuse). Those risks—from both content and the effects of device use—are particularly significant for children and teens. Start by recognizing the pros and cons of technology, then consider some simple tactics to optimize the good stuff and reduce the not-so-good stuff.

Digital media use by children, teens, and families

Screens are everywhere, and most people are connected pretty much all the time, even children and teens.

Consider that about ¾ of American teens have a smartphone, 4/5 of households have a gaming device, and regular exposure to digital media begins at just 4 months old.

Most teens actually multitask most of the time they’re using devices, such as watching TV while also on the computer or smartphone.

Setting healthy boundaries around screen time isn’t as cut and dry as just limiting access or the number of hours spent on devices. For example, your kids might use their devices to connect to friends at your last duty location or to keep in touch with deployed parents or relatives. The lines between what types of technology use make up communication vs. entertainment are blurred too. For example, many online games have chat (via text and audio) features that let users talk while playing.

Schoolwork also might require your kids to access the Internet, use certain apps, or be on their devices more frequently than you usually allow. So implementing rules to simply cut back on screen time can easily backfire. Instead, focus on what types of online activities should be limited and when. (Plus, your screen use is the biggest predictor of your kids screen use, so don’t make any declarations you aren’t prepared to follow yourself.) Try to be thoughtful about how you and your family use technology and focus on making screen use productive and safe.

Connection and communication

Social media, cell phones, video calls, and text messages are just a few ways digital devices help you connect with others. For teens, most technology use is considered a social activity. But the risk is that those virtual connections might get in the way of one-on-one or in-person connections, which are also very important. For parents, technology use can distract from engaging with your children. And for some young children (infants, toddlers, and preschoolers), digital media can actually delay their social and emotional development. Outside the home, cell phone interruption while you’re with another person has been shown to negatively impact forming relationships.

Optimization tactics

  • Be the model. For example, if you want family meal time to be a time to connect, then put your cell phone away too.
  • Talk to your kids about which public situations are appropriate (or not) to use a device or cell phone. For example, discuss whether talking on or using the phone is okay while seated in a restaurant, on the school bus, or when they’re one-on-one with someone else.
  • Consider the social needs of your teen. If you’ve recently moved or your child is struggling to connect with friends at school, remember how important it can be for them to stay in touch with those who are far away. Worldwide online connections can also help teens who might feel excluded from their local communities, such as teens who identify with a particular sexual orientation or gender identity, find a social circle that fits their needs. Just be sure to have a conversation with them about Internet safety and to review the groups they’re in from time to time.

Physical health and sleep

Even though screen time has some definite benefits, it’s also linked to negative health outcomes. Teens who watch 5+ hours of TV a day are more likely to be overweight than teens who limit their TV time to 0−2 hours per day. More sedentary screen time often means more snacking, more exposure to ads for unhealthy foods, and less time being active. Screen use can also cause eye muscle pain, blurry vision, and even auditory or tactile illusions (such as thinking you heard your phone ring or felt it vibrate).

Screen time also impacts sleep—which can hurt school performance. To start, the blue light that comes from devices suppresses the sleep hormone, melatonin. In young kids, exciting or scary images from TV shows or videos also can make it hard to settle down and rest. And most teens don’t turn off their phones at night, so they might be disrupted by notifications or by feeling compelled to respond to messages that come through after they’ve gone to bed.

Optimization tactics

  • Help you kids reduce their sedentary screen time outside of what’s needed for school or other social activities. Suggest alternative activities and screen use that encourages movement (such as video games that include dancing or sports movements).
  • Keep your kids interested in and excited about exercise by making activity into a game.
  • Discourage devices and TVs in the bedroom, and limit their use in the 2 hours before bed. Brainstorm other activities (such as reading, doing arts and crafts, and taking walks) to help your kids wind down at night.

Mental and emotional health

The mental and emotional effects of your kids using digital media can be significant. On the positive side, access to entertainment, games, and social networks can offer stress relief, and even a form of self-care. But your teen’s attachment to devices or video games can also become addictive, particularly if their technology use impacts their ability to focus on school work or relationships. Attachment to devices also has the potential to create a variety of different anxieties. For example, teens might experience “FOMO” (fear of missing out) when they can’t always see what their peers are up to or respond to texts or chats right away.

Younger children can experience mental health impacts as well. Consider when you let your little ones use the tablet or watch a video on your phone—if you tend to give them a device when they are upset or cranky they might begin to rely on it as a coping mechanism rather than developing their own emotional regulation skills.

Optimization tactics

  • Discuss boundaries for using devices. Remember, it’s not about simply cutting out cell phone use or reducing TV time—it’s about being really thoughtful about when devices are used, and for what purposes. If your kids or teens show addictive behaviors or other anxieties around using their devices, talk to them about creating new boundaries. Get their input and include their thoughts when setting limits.
  • Use digital content to boost self-esteem. Consider watching shows or videos with characters your kids can identify with. For example, look for content with characters of similar background, ethnicity, or nationality as you child. Think about the values you want to build in your child and try to find shows, movies, and games that build these values. And look for content that shows military families and kids.
  • Encourage healthy hobbies and other coping strategies in your children. Technology can aid learning and development and be a great source of entertainment, but it’s important to explore ways for your children to decompress without it.
  • Talk regularly with your kids about what they watch and play online. The more aware you are of their screen choices, the better you can help them if they see something upsetting—and guide them to safer content.

Bottom line

Digital media is everywhere, and kids and teens are using more and more technology at younger and younger ages. As a military parent, technology can be a lifeline for your kids to connect to those they care about. And digital media can be a valuable (and necessary) tool for their learning and development. There are also many challenges and risks when technology use is left unchecked. By making some thoughtful adjustments and having a few pointed conversations with your children, you can help optimize your family’s technology use—and health.

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