Screen time should be seen as something to handle in moderation, like food, rather than something destructively addictive such as heroin. Picture: 123RF/KIRILL RYZHOV
Screen time should be seen as something to handle in moderation, like food, rather than something destructively addictive such as heroin. Picture: 123RF/KIRILL RYZHOV

Screen time is a relatively new parenting concept — one that sometimes incorporates navigating the realm of parenting through the use of threats and rewards and making the best decisions for your children regarding their health, leisure time and general wellbeing.

The only guidelines are new research and studies that often warn of the calamitous consequences of “digital addiction”. But, despite the doom and gloom surrounding the use of smartphones and tablets, new research suggests it is not all bad.

In a commentary posted in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a peer-reviewed medical journal, Dimitri Christakis argues that there is a fine line between beneficial media exposure and damaging media exposure. 

As the director of the Centre for Child Health, Behavior and Development at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, a professor in the field and a practising pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital, Christakis is a leading expert in the field of child health care.

Christakis writes in the publication, “A recent meta-analysis found that adolescents with heavy and no social media usage have diminished mental health compared with those with moderate usage.”

Compared with children who didn’t use social media, children who used social media for one hour per day had a 12% reduced risk of depression. Children who used social media for three hours a day had a 19% increased risk of depression while using social media for five hours increased their risk by 80%.

What gives me pause about the discussion of digital addiction is it doesn’t always take into account the meaningful things that happen with digital technology that cause kids to do it
Ellen Selkie, assistant professor of adolescent medicine at the University of Michigan

Defining when screen time is beneficial to children’s health is not as simple as time spent on a device or activity but rather how that time is spent.

Ellen Selkie, an assistant-professor of adolescent medicine at the University of Michigan, says we need to start viewing social media differently. She told the New York Times screen time should be seen as something to handle in moderation, like food, rather than something destructively addictive like heroin.

Just as one would make the decision to consume healthy or unhealthy food, decisions around the use of technology are also nuanced. “What gives me pause about the discussion of digital addiction is it doesn’t always take into account the meaningful things that happen with digital technology that cause kids to do it,” says Selkie.

Christakis uses the example of an online support group. “For an LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer] teen, such a community can be an invaluable and otherwise unavailable supportive resource, but for a teen with an eating disorder that social media exposure may normalise and even encourage the behaviour.”

The amount of screen time younger and older children should be exposed to also differs. With the younger ones, there is evidence that supports limiting the absolute amount of screen time but with older children parents need to consider other factors such as socialising. “With a teen who always seems to be on their phone, is that addiction or is that where their friends are?” Selkie asks .

In thinking of technology as a way of socialising, children’s avoidance of technology can likewise be a telltale sign of depression or isolation and a cry for help.  

Selkie offers a snippet of advice: when a teenager’s digital dependency starts interfering with other parts of living life, you should be concerned. If a child is not sleeping properly, not doing his or her homework or if phone usage results in constant fights, parents may consider setting limits and helping their children navigate a healthy relationship with technology.