According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 8- to 18-year-olds average about 7.5 hours per day of media use. The only thing they (might) do more of is sleep!

Media use primarily includes watching TV, playing video games and engaging with social media. While digital literacy is vital in this day and age, changes in tech also mean increased challenges for parents trying to create a balance of screen time and friend/family time. 

On top of avoiding health issues related to excessive screen time, parents are also trying to keep their kids safe from inappropriate content and coaching them how to handle cyberbullying. In fact, in a 2019 Google survey of parents and teachers, educators said that cyberbullying is their top concern in the classroom and parents reported it as their fourth concern at home. As classroom learning shifts to an online experience in the age of COVID-19, the challenges posed to parents are shifting yet again. 

Health Effects

MedlinePlus, a publication of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, warns that allowing kids too much screen time can lead to insomnia, attention deficit and weight gain. But, that’s not all. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) also says that too much screen time can result in mood problems, poor school performance, poor self-image and a lack of knowledge about other ways to relax and have fun. Some doctors point out that kids who use their screens all day could have an increase in behavioral issues

Does all screen time affect all children the same? No. One of the main factors to consider is age. In one study, kids who spent more time watching screens at 2 and 3 later did worse on developmental tests at 5. Children in the United Kingdom between 9 and 10, with at least three hours of screen time per day, were found to have higher levels of insulin resistance than their peers with one hour or less of screen time daily. Insulin resistance can lead to diabetes. 

When it comes to teenagers, one of the primary concerns is mental health. Children 13 to 18 are more likely to report an increase in mental health issues, including depression and suicidal thoughts, the more time they spend on new media (including browsing the internet). As teenagers gain a certain amount of independence, the influence of their media consumption can also lead to anything from bad food choices and substance abuse to lack of sleep due to late-night scrolling. 

Social Media

Social media is always evolving and keeping up with new sites can be perplexing to parents who grew up in a pre-internet era. Even adults who consider themselves internet savvy may have a difficult time figuring out the appeal of certain sites – or understanding the potential dangers of their children participating on social media apps. Here is a quick guide to understanding which social media sites are appropriate for kids. 

TikTok

TikTok allows users to create short video clips, sometimes serious, mostly funny or entertaining, and share them with followers. It might not be the best place for someone under 13 (the youngest age the app allows users to sign up) because there is often mature content posted, and the nature of the app makes it easy to find and share content from strangers. A child’s post could quickly go viral unintentionally. This app is also under scrutiny by the U.S. government.

Instagram

Instagram is a photo-sharing app that is most popular among people between 25 and 34. That being said, the app makes it easy to protect the privacy of your photos. Allowing younger kids to scroll a parent-selected group of accounts from time to time is probably safe under supervision. 

Facebook

Waning in popularity among young people, Facebook content runs the gamut of fun games and community groups to more divisive content. Like most social media, this site is more appropriate for teenagers who can make more informed decisions about who they respond to and allow to see their page. 

Twitter

The regular version of Twitter is best left to the grown ups. However, with Wee Tweet: Twitter for Kids, parents can also manage their child's account through the Twitter website, and decide who their child can follow.

Parental Controls

One of the best tools parents have to combat safety concerns related to screen time is parental controls. These settings allow you to manage which sites your kids can visit, which shows they can watch, and sometimes how often they’re allowed to remain online. Alongside a healthy discussion with kids about what constitutes a red flag online, setting these controls can give parents at least a little bit of peace of mind. 

Apple Parental Controls

On Apple devices, including iPads, parents can prevent App Store purchases, restrict Siri web searches, prevent explicit content from being displayed and set privacy restrictions. Instructions for how to set controls can be found here

Google Parental Controls

Parents who allow their kids to play games and watch media on Google Play can also set controls. This includes choosing the highest content rating available to kids, limiting the types of books that can be purchased and limiting TVs and movies available for streaming. Instructions can be found here

Netflix Parental Controls

Netflix allows parents to create profiles with defined maturing ratings, so children can only access age-appropriate content. Adult profiles on the same account can be password protected to prevent access. Instructions for Netflix controls can be found here

TV Provider Controls

Your television provider may allow you to set parental controls related to many aspects of television viewing. Common parental controls include rating restrictions, a PIN required for more mature content, hiding adult titles, purchase controls and time/day restrictions. Here’s where to find control instructions for popular television providers:

Blocking Websites

Not sure your device settings are enough to keep kids safe online? Parents can also intentionally block certain websites to ensure kids don’t fall into adult-themed chat rooms, find videos they shouldn’t be viewing or be able to hand over credit card information to make purchases. Website blockers let an administrator (the parent) set parameters and block specific websites. 

Many website blockers intended for productivity can also be used for blocking adult content, while other blockers are aimed specifically at parental controls. For instance, Chrome’s Block Site extension is password protected and can be used to block both distracting sites for adults and inappropriate sites for kids. For Mac, the Freedom app serves a similar purpose. You can set viewing schedules and block certain apps and websites (though this particular app does charge a fee). 

Other popular website blockers include Net Nanny, Bark and Qustodio. Be sure to change passwords associated with these blockers frequently, and don’t use a password that is already in use on other devices – this makes it easier for kids to get around the security measure.  

Scheduling Internet Time

Limiting and scheduling intentional screen time from a young age teaches kids to develop a healthy relationship with their screens. That is, it may stop a damaging attitude about screens from starting early (“I need my phone to sleep,” “I need to be able to check messages immediately,” “I can’t concentrate without a TV in the background”). The average adult picks up their phone 58 times per day (on top of using computers and TVs), making screen addiction something to discourage before it begins. 

Parents should consider the age and specific needs of their children when establishing household rules about screens. Here are some of the recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization:

  • Toddlers up to 24 months old should have little to no screen time at all, as it may hinder critical development and they need human contact and creative interactions. Any screen time should be shared with an adult and be educational in nature.
  • Kids between 3 and 5 can safely have access to one hour of screen time each day. Cartoons with lessons or relatable life interactions are especially meaningful to children around this age. 
  • From 6 to 10, up to 90 minutes of scheduled screen time has the green light from experts. Around this age, kids can handle having a bit more choice when it comes to choosing content and knowing what they like. Make sure screen time doesn’t interfere with adequate sleep. 
  • After age 11, a maximum of two hours of screen time is recommended as a regular habit. 

Keeping in mind that some days will include more screen time than others, the main takeaway is to create balance in children’s lives. A rainy day might call for more than average screen time, which is fine as long as creative play and outdoor activities are also scheduled into the family lifestyle. 

Educating Your Children

Beyond setting time limits and blocking websites, the best thing parents can do for their kids is educate them about the types of scams and theft that can occur online. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), some of the most common ways that children and teenagers overshare or get hacked online are related to phishing scams, peer-to-peer file sharing and downloading suspicious apps. While federal tracking of annual scams and online fraud focus only on those users who are over 18, we know that Americans between the 18 and 34 fall for more scams than older counterparts (almost 44% of all scam victims fall in this age group). Given that many scams have transitioned from phone scams to email and online scams, internet users are more and more vulnerable. 

Another issue is oversharing personal information. Online scams that tend to specifically target young people to capture personal details include fake scholarships, acting and modeling scams and summer job scams. All of these scams ask young internet users to send in their personal information to be further considered for the position, etc. That information may then be used to steal their identity. 

Talk to children about the common scams. Credit bureaus and government agencies like the FTC tend to disclose the top current scams at least once a year. While young people may be tech savvy, their lack of life experience still leaves them vulnerable to scammers and other nefarious activity from strangers online. Share stories of worst case scenarios to bring to light possible consequences of oversharing or clicking unknown links. 

Parenting in the age of the internet brings unique challenges. Strangers can now access young people nearly any time, any where, even while they are inside their own homes with the doors locked. Excessive screen time can affect development and attention span. The best plan for parents is to create a healthy internet schedule, stick to it and integrate outdoor and social activities into weekly activities.

Getting fresh air and meeting new IRL (in real life) friends can do wonders that being online can’t. When in doubt, turn to trusted sources like Common Sense Media for recommendations on the best streaming shows and movies based on age and your family doctor if and when signs of internet addiction arise. 

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