Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

Kaiser Study: How much time should your kid spend with technology?

My Aha! Parenting Moment last week came while my son was home for winter break. He had an operation on his knee and couldn’t do much besides lie on the couch and read. So he spent a fair amount of time playing computer games, something he doesn’t have time for at college. Now,  I loved having him home, but it took a lot of time to wait on him hand and foot while he was healing. I have to admit I was happy when he was occupied with the computer and I could focus on my own work.

So I would look up from writing at my computer and see him playing a computer game, and then feel guilty.  True, he’d already spent the morning reading philosophy for school.  But shouldn’t I do something with him?  Play chess, or make a photo album, or help him revise his resume to look for a summer internship? If only I wasn’t so busy, I knew I could interest him in something better for him than playing computer games.

Then I read a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation. The study found that the average 8 to 18 year old American now spends practically every waking minute — except for the time in school — using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device.

So is technology use terrible for kids? Well, we can’t really study kids who don’t use technology because they don’t seem to exist in this country. Although one of my son’s friends doesn’t have a facebook page, and she did get perfect SAT scores, so my study of one supports the theory that kids do better without technology.

But in the Kaiser study, the kids who use technology three hours or less per day seem to do ok.  Presumably, that leaves them time for other passions, schoolwork, and relating to their families.

Excessive technology use, on the other hand, is associated with bad grades, depression, bad family relationships, and kids getting into all kinds of trouble. Of course, this is a chicken or egg problem, since maybe the kids with the problems are the ones most likely to retreat into technology addiction – but either way, the technology use isn’t helping.  

So the amount of time the average kid is spending with technology, which is every waking minute, really is bad for them. The authors of the study said they were shocked by their findings.

My Aha! Moment came when I started thinking about the study finding that more than 70% of kids have a TV in their bedroom, and about a third have a computer with Internet access in their bedroom. That’s what shocked me. I have to admit that I think my kids  spend too much time on their computers. They’ve always needed my help to resist the addictive lure of computer time, whether with Facebook or computer games. And while I consider myself a relatively permissive parent about many things, I know that a ton of money gets spent figuring out how to make my kids, and all kids, want to spend more time playing computer games or just hanging out on Facebook.   

So in the same way that I’ve taught my kids to eat right and brush their teeth, I’ve given them help to learn how to keep technology addictions from cutting into more productive time, whether that’s for schoolwork or reading or even sleeping, which experts say virtually all kids spend too little time doing.  So the idea of letting my kids have a computer or TV in their bedrooms seems roughly analogous to letting them have a drug dealer in their bedroom.  Why would I not protect my child?

Then I thought of my son playing computer games while I worked.  Aha!  Kids by themselves can’t handle that computer addiction. We know that. Reading or chess or artwork are all hard work.  Rewarding, yes, but hard.  They just can’t compete with the lure of the screen. Parents need to set that limit.  But we’re busy, as I was, on our own computers.  So we let our kids play one more computer game.  We let them retreat into their bedrooms, glued to their screens, so we can get one more thing done.  Who among us has time to play a game of chess with our kid, or make a photo album?

You’ll be happy to hear that the Kaiser study also showed that in homes with rules and limits on technology, like no television during meals or in the bedroom, young people used less media.  So parents who are brave enough to set limits about when and where kids use technology ARE effective in protecting their kids. And they’re rewarded -- with kids who do better in school, who are healthier, happier, and who relate more warmly with their families.

And, of course, it isn’t just setting limits, it’s actually spending time.  These parents might be getting another reward too. Working with your kid on his resume is a perfect time to talk about his future.  That photo album is great opportunity to ask your son about that cute girl.  And even that game of chess gives ample opportunity for your son to open up about what’s on his mind.

Excuse me while I close my computer and go spend time with my son.

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