How Much Screen Time Is Too Much?

Sally E. Bahner Photo .Parents and educators all over the country are struggling with how to strike a balance between screen time and face time. A recent survey reveals that 50 percent of teenagers consider themselves addicted to their cellphones. Another survey found that kids spend 6.5 hours a day in front of screens.

Schools struggle with the distraction created by cellphones in the classroom. Some have strict policies, such as locking them away at the beginning of the day and giving them back at the end. Others leave it up to the individual instructors.

And parents struggle with their younger kids’ demands for cellphones, while trying to set limits for teenagers.

Sally E. Bahner PhotoMany of these concerns were at the forefront last week during a viewing of the documentary, “Screenagers,” at Branford High School and the discussion that followed. A table displayed supporting resources in the lobby.

The screening was the first in a series of presentations by Branford Families titled, “Growing Healthy Families in the Digital Age.” In terms of parents’ concerns, Celia Toche, an organizer of Branford families, said, “You are not alone… there is a lot of modeling to do.”

In introducing the film, Lynda Mollow, who headed up the screening and is parent to a 10-year-old and a 15-year-old, said that when she was sent a link to the film, she said, “This is gold!” She said that over the next few weeks, there will be a survey about the use of technology at home and at school.  Mollow is a former RTM representative and ran for the first selectwoman’s post in the November election.

Walsh Intermediate school principal Raeanne Reynolds said, “Most kids are pretty good. Some hand them in in the morning and pick them up at night.”

However, she said that problems with smart phones can start after school on the buses.

The Branford School District’s policy on electronic devices is less than specific. It reads: “Students shall not use digital personal communications devices during class time without the permission of a Board of Education employee.  Students are allowed to use these devices during non-class time and where appropriate as determined by school administration.” (5131.81)  Presumably lunch is non-class time.

Not all public schools allow cellphones inside the school. 

Cell phones were banned at Seymour High School as of Dec. 11; phones and personal electronic devices cannot be used between 7:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. The ban extends to lunch and between classes. The result has been generally positive with students pulling out board games and conversing more. The school is still discussing ways to balance the learning benefits of the devices verses the distraction. 

In addition, the Branford school district also has a policy concerning cyberbullying: “The Branford School District’s computer network and the Internet, whether accessed on campus or off campus, during or after school hours, may not be used for the purpose of harassment. All forms of harassment over the Internet, commonly referred to as cyberbullying, are unacceptable and viewed as a violation of this policy and the District’s acceptable computer use policy and procedures.” (5131.913)

The Film, the Phone and the Brain

“Screenagers” opens with a discussion between filmmaker Delaney Ruston and her daughter, a young teen, who wants her flip phone replaced by a smart phone. The girl gets a new flip phone, but she is clearly unhappy with it. “All the kids have phones,” she says. She does get the smart phone, but her parents make her sign a contract, which restricts access. She isn’t happy with that either.

The film delves into the effect of screen time on teenagers’ brains. Use of a phone and the need to respond immediately release dopamine, which plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior, along with over-stimulation of the brain, which responds in the same way as it does to chemicals and gambling.

Video games also play a big part in kids’ day-to-day activities. Studies have found that they decrease empathy and build aggression; it was noted that similar games have been developed by the military to desensitize soldiers. In one case shown in the film, a teenage boy was so addicted to the games that he was treated in a special Internet rehabilitation facility.

With girls, there’s the emphasis on how they look and they often experience body shaming when posting photos, especially photos that are suggestive.

In a study cited in the film, computers in the home were found to decrease test scores, especially in homes with only one parent.

The teen girl’s parents kept the line of communication open in an effort to strike a balance. They realized that they needed her input into the contract and they decided to make time for regular discussions.

A Post Film Discussion

The discussion after the film solidified the importance of talking with kids and reaching an agreement about screen time. “Tech Talk Tuesdays” was suggested as a designated time for parents and kids to share their thoughts and concerns.

“Everything is tech-based,” said Reynolds.

One parent noted that when you walk into Walsh, no phones are out. “If they [students] see it, they want it.”

A good point since it was said in the film that if one phone is out and looked at by a student, it distracts others.

One girl echoed the comment of the teen in the film. “Everyone has a cellphone!”

Another parent asked what alternatives to screen use can be provided. Toche said she was working with the Branford Land Trust for some ideas.

The discussion kept returning to the issue of balance and responsible use. Reynolds said the middle school is critical in developing balance. “High school is a different conversation,” she said. High school teachers have their own policy, which usually prohibits phones.

“The Art of Screen Time”

A new book about kids and screen use has generated a lot of media discussion.

“The Art of Screen Time,” by Anya Kamenetz dives into many of the topics covered by “Screenagers” and the discussion that followed.

Kamenetz talked to 500 families in writing her book and found that watching videos was the most common activity. The “binge watching” culture has normalized such activity along with the Youtube format that draws you in and keeps you in by feeding you the next video. “Our attention has been monetized,” she says.

Kamenetz acknowledges that there are a lot of benefits to technology, such as helping toddlers learn and count. She stresses the importance of using it with your kids, using the devices responsibly, and setting limits on time and sites.

She reiterates problems such as the need to respond immediately, the effect on sleep, the feeling of being addicted, risk of obesity, and aggression.

She stresses the importance of observing your kids, adding that the use of devices should be all right as long as they can turn it off and be okay afterwards. A red flag is an “emotional explosion” occurring when a video game is turned off. More control is needed with young children; with older kids, rules can backfire and there is a need to negotiate. If there are problems with school and relationships, you have to figure out what to do.

Recognizing the growing problem with screen use, companies are creating apps to help govern it use. Apple is helping with smart phone use by kids by offering parental controls. Net Nanny filters out curse words and pornography. Amazon Fire offers discussion cards as a way of making the device more productive. Other apps include Disney’s Circle, Moment, Torch, and Flip.

Not to be left out of the equation is the adults’ dependence on cellphones and their own relationship to media, something that frequently enters into the discussion with kids.

According to Kamenetz, the last major piece of federally funded legislation on children (and television) was in 1982. “It’s hard to get up-to-date information,” she says. “We still need to learn more about the effect on the brain.”

Follow-up on the Film

“Screenagers” was the first in a series of discussion planned by Branford Families and the school district. On Tuesday, Feb. 6, a workshop is planned at Walsh Intermediate School with Dr. Alicia Farrell, titled Families Following Through. The workshop will cover neurology and development and why screen time limits are important as well as setting limits effectively for all ages, making contracts, building bonds between children and parents, and nurturing civility and respect.

Additional events are planned for March, April, May, and June. For more information, visit branfordfamilies.org.

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posted by: Michael C. McCleery on February 1, 2018  4:13pm

How can a parent seek to limit the time youngsters are watching, when they themselves are watching twice that much?
How can a parent object to the content of what their children are watching, when they themselves are fueling an industry devoted to sex, violence and rock-and-roll?
Conflict resolution should not be achieved at the end of an M-16.
Fortunately, I won;t be around when this chicken really comes home to roost.