Raising a Screen-Smart Kid: What Parents Need to Know

Interview with Screen Health Researcher and Policy Advocate Lauren Paer

For the frazzled modern parent, "iPad" has practically become synonymous with "babysitter." Click on a screen, and your cranky, wailing child is miraculously transformed into a mesmerized little angel - buying you the time to make dinner, squeeze in a power nap, or enjoy some blessed silence on a long car ride. Yet while we all have a vague understanding that this magic trick comes at a cost, most of us remain ignorant - perhaps willfully so - to the consequences of exposing our kids to excessive screen time.

As the mother of a two-year-old, I've racked up my fair share of parenting fails, but one thing I feel pretty good about is that for now, my husband and I have mostly resisted the powerful urge to use screens as parental placeholders. We have a few factors working for us - my son is at preschool full-time, and we don't even own an iPad or TV. We have begun allowing one movie (on the computer) per weekend, however, and as I brace myself for the arrival of our second baby, I worry that the temptation to subdue the toddler with Netflix will become too great to resist.

What are the actual repercussions of screen time on kids? And if we agree that screens are an unavoidable presence in modern life, how do we gauge the ideal quantity and kind of exposure? I sat down with screen health researcher and policy advocate Lauren Paer to find out.

Lauren, thank you for sharing your research! How did you end up getting interested in the effects of screens on children?

I've always been fascinated by how the rapid evolution of technology affects both the economy and society at large, and started to get more and more interested in the effects of screen time after working on a summit on technological unemployment. After moving back to Hawaii, I ended up working for Senator Russell Ruderman and drafted a resolution that he introduced compelling the Department of Health to survey existing research on screen time's effects, and am currently advocating to secure funding for this research. I see screen time as a public health issue and potentially even a public health crisis, so government has a role in taking action, but so do communities, schools, and families.

I see screen time as a public health issue and potentially even a public health crisis, so government has a role in taking action, but so do communities, schools, and families.

I was recently offered my own show on ThinkTech Hawaii starting in January. It’ll be called "Screen Time 101." I see it as a vehicle to educate the community on this public health issue, so I hope your Hawaii readers will check it out!

Awesome - I'm looking forward to it! My understanding is that "screen time" refers to both passive and active exposure to phones, tablets, computers, and TVs, from watching a show to using applications and social media, to playing games. For the purposes of your research on screen health, is this broad definition appropriate?

Yes -- screen time refers to all of those things, but different kinds of screen time lead to different effects. For example, programs or games with rapid movement and loud sounds are going to create more stress in the body -- they trigger the fight-or-flight response -- as opposed to slower, calmer images and sounds.

What are the greatest harms associated with children's overexposure to screens?

Attention and executive function problems, behavioral issues, sleep disruption, stunted social-emotional learning, and the inability to self-soothe are some of the big ones. Dependence on screens also diminishes kids' "human competitive advantages" -- in other words, the things we still do better than computers, like deep thinking, creative problem-solving, and interpersonal interaction. Victoria Dunckley, who wrote Reset Your Child's Brain, coined the term "electronic screen syndrome" (ESS) to encompass the whole host of potential repercussions that result from the chronic stress and dysregulating effects of screens. I don’t want parents to use this information to beat themselves up, but it’s important they’re aware of the effects screens can have on their children. Young children are especially susceptible -- there is so much going on in those early development years, and their systems are very sensitive.

What common misconceptions do you hear about screen time from parents?

One I hear a lot is that parents assume "interactive" (games, social media, and apps) is better than "passive." The problem with interactive screen time is that it arouses kids' nervous systems more and has a greater dysregulatory effect. On top of that, because it's more arousing, it is more disruptive to sleep. Just half an hour of playing a game or interacting with a tablet will upset a child's sleep, versus the same effect after two hours of passively watching a movie.

Another misconception is that "as long as it's educational, it's okay." The problem with that is that companies can be pretty sloppy and there's not a lot of quality control. An app or game might offer educational content, but be designed in a way that negatively affects the user's nervous system. In addition, with a screen, you also don't get the sensory integration benefits of, say, learning to write by physically manipulating letters or a pencil. It also further cements a child’s connection to and desire for screens.

Another misconception is that "as long as it's educational, it's okay."

We do live in a tech-saturated world, and so some parents are worried that "depriving" their kids of access to technology will put them at a disadvantage in the future. But before about the age of 10, the advantages don't outweigh the downsides. The Waldorf school system, which sets a good standard, doesn't introduce screens until the 8th grade. I personally think that giving kids their own smartphones can wait until high school, since middle school is such a fraught time already. Flip phones are a good alternative for middle schoolers who need a way to be in touch with parents and don’t want to feel totally left out by their friend group.

Many Silicon Valley execs choose to educate their own children in low-tech environments such as Waldorf Schools. What do people in the tech industry know about screens’ effects on kids that the rest of us might be ignorant of?

Based on a lot of what I've read, tech professionals have a better sense for how addictive technology is because they've actually worked to create those dopamine loops that get us hooked! I think that they also know that tech use isn't really necessary for young kids to get ahead. Finally, some of them are hyper-aware of the social handicaps that tech addiction can lead to based on firsthand experience.

Is “less is better” always true for kids and screen time, or is there a healthy amount of exposure?

For young kids, I do think less is always better, but I also don't want to make parents feel guilty about occasionally allowing screens. Parenting is hard! The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) recommendations are reasonable - about one hour per day of high quality programming for kids 2-5. But it's also important to know your own child, because they may be more or less susceptible to screen time's effects. Reset Your Child's Brain explains this spectrum really well.

For parents who have long commutes with their kids, or simply too much on their plate, screens can seem like a godsend -- or at least a necessary evil. How can they make the best of their kids’ screen time exposure?

With long commutes, I'd really caution against using screens since it establishes a habit. More positive alternatives are audiobooks or age-appropriate music, which allow for some entertainment but still let kids be aware of their surroundings.

Plane rides with young children can be brutal. Is it okay to break usual family screen time rules and let them go on a binge during a long flight or for other exceptional circumstances?

I think so. That's different from an everyday commute. What's important is to be conscious about how much screen time your kids are actually getting on a regular basis, so that those "exceptional situations" aren't actually building up to the norm. Just as a food diary brings awareness to what you're actually consuming, a screen time log can help your family stay vigilant.

My 2-year-old son loves to watch the same thing over and over - he’s only seen maybe 5 movies, but each of those a number of times. What’s happening in a kid’s brain when they view and review the same thing again and again?

As adults, our brains are so wired already, and we forget how much input we're getting and how much there is to figure out. For a human who's newer to the world, repetition is necessary to make sense of stimuli - each time your son watches the same movie, he's picking up new things and making new connections. The show Blue's Clues was famous for showing the same episode every day of the week, and kids loved it - it helped them gain confidence in their understanding as their neural pathways solidified. I actually think repetition is great for kids, and my vision for "ideal" media consumption is that kids would have access to a small, thoughtfully curated set of choices rather than endless novelty.

I know I check my phone way more frequently than I’d like to admit - it’s such an ingrained impulse. How does parents’ dependence on screens affect their kids?

...behavioral modeling is the most powerful way kids learn: if they see their parents constantly engrossed in their devices, they are likely to mimic that behavior.

Another researcher I really like, Catherine Steiner-Adaire (author of The Big Disconnect), points out that a lot of parents don't realize how often they're focused on their phone as opposed to engaging with their children, and that's upsetting for kids. They get frustrated and exhausted from always having to compete with an iPhone for attention. Which is not to say that parents should be doting 24/7 on their kids either, but they should be careful with being on their phone too much in front of their children. And keep in mind that behavioral modeling is the most powerful way kids learn: if they see their parents constantly engrossed in their devices, they are likely to mimic that behavior. One thing you can do is to try to physically remove yourself from the room your child is in when you're using your phone, so you’re not modeling bad behavior and so you become more conscious of the separation that's created.

You don’t have children of your own (yet!). What has made you so passionate about this issue?

For me, when I see the sheer number of children this is affecting, it's clear this is a massive public health issue that impacts us all because children are our future. I also have a lot of empathy for parents because they are navigating challenging and uncharted territory. If you’re struggling as a parent and reading this interview, please know you’re not alone. Many feel “out of control” and some even say they’re “drowning” as they struggle to limit their children’s tech. Parents need and deserve more community and government support.

Interested in learning more about screen health or sharing your own experiences with technology and parenting? Feel free to reach out to Lauren at laurenpaer@gmail.com, and check out her show "Screen Time 101" at ThinkTech Hawaii beginning in January 2019.


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