Policy & Research
Policy Brief

Tech Addiction; Not All Screens Are Created Equal

By Emma Morris International Policy Manager, Family Online Safety Institute | Sept. 10, 2018

For many years the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended no screen time for under 2’s. The advice was clear and easy to follow, in theory if not always in practice, parents should avoid giving their toddler a computer. However, technology changed but the guidance took time to update, in the meantime parenting became more complicated. What do you do when grandparents want to FaceTime? or when the toys that a baby has don’t have screen but do connect to the Internet? How does one parent in this new digital environment and what can be done to help?

There is no escaping the fact that phones, laptops, tablets, and gaming devices are incredibly attractive to children, just as they are to adults. From the flashing images to the new message tone all are designed to grab our attention. Parents are concerned about their children who may spend all evening playing games instead of completing their homework, or who may be so consumed with the latest social media post that they neglect their chores. But at what point does this become more than just childhood behavior, or misbehavior, and is there any point that outside intervention necessary?

Too much time playing games or surfing the Internet rings alarm bells for parents about the impact of the technology on children’s attention spans, social skills, and behavioral problems. They also complain about kids being distracted and unable or unwilling to put down the devices. They hear the scare stories and see the headlines about ‘tech addiction’ and its dangerous impact on families. But at the same time children are being encouraged to do more and more online at school and for homework and the jobs of the future are often touted as being technology based. Parents are confused and are looking for guidance from pediatricians, government, and experts. 

At a recent FOSI Briefs the Hill event on Kids, Screen Time & “Tech Addiction” panelists explored the use of technology and its implications on child development. Dr. Michael Rich, Center on Media and Child Health, Harvard, spoke specifically about the term “tech addiction.” He reminded the audience the word addiction is used loosely in society, but that it has real meaning in the medical community. There has not been a physiologically measured response to technology withdrawal, as in the case of medically acknowledged addiction, and he explained that a preferable term is “problematic interactive media use.” 

The expert panelists also talked about the need for balance in children’s activities, and how some children may choose to spend more time playing sports rather than online activities. There was consensus that there is no right answer, no one size fits all response to the question of how much time should children spend on the Internet. However true this may be it doesn’t help caretakers in the upbringing of their families.  

There is general agreement that there is a need for more research. This is an incredibly new space, in fact this is the first generation to be born into an online world that allows a teddy bear to read them stories, the connects them to family on the other side of the world, and offers them opportunities to travel and explore different countries from the device in their pocket. The implications on their cognitive, behavioral, and social development have yet to be established and explored.

In July 2018, Senators Markey, Sasse, Blunt, Schatz, Bennet, and Collins, and Representatives Delaney and Budd from the United States Congress introduced bipartisan and bicameral legislation to study the impact of technology and media on children. The legislation entitled the Children and Media Research Advancement Act would direct funding to explore the effects of media on core areas of cognitive, physical, and socio-emotional development of infants, children, and adolescents. This research would investigate the impact of exposure to and use of media such as smartphones, computers, social media sites, apps, websites, television, movies, artificial intelligence, video games, and virtual and augmented reality.  

This detailed and longitudinal study will explore the positive and negative effects of modern day technology use, and is vital in enhancing our understanding of the impact of media and developing the appropriate responses as a society to ensure the well-being of children. 

In the meantime, industry has recognized the concerns of many, not just parents, and has developed a range of tools to track and manage technology use. Apple introduced activity reports, app limits and Do Not Disturb functionality in iOS 12 to help individuals reduce interruptions in their daily lives, and control screen time for themselves and for their families. Google launched a digital well-being campaign to help people better understand their use of devices and to create healthy technology habits for the whole family. Users can access information on how long they have been using their phone and apps, and set reminders to take a break. The ability to quiet notifications and the in-built options to instill balance in children’s lives through Family Link are all integral to the well-being work that is being undertaken.  

Mobile carriers, such as Verizon have developed tools that allow parents to manage aspects of their kids’ smartphones like content filters and screen time limits. In addition to monitoring their children’s use of the phone, parents are able to remotely pause the Wi-Fi functionality of the device and set time restrictions, to allow for uninterrupted homework time or bedtime.

The gaming industry, through the Entertainment Software Rating Board, has created resources on how to activate parental controls and monitor children’s playing of games. The tools allow parents to limit access to games based on the ESRB rating categories, set the duration of gaming, as well as to restrict access to online interactions such as in-game chat, web browsing, and in-game purchases. Additionally, Facebook and Instagram introduced new tools to manage their time on the platforms. The services provide an activity dashboard, a daily reminder and a new way to limit notifications. 

Many of these advancements are designed to give users more information about the time that they are spending online, with this increased data in the hands of individuals it is hoped that they will be able to make informed choices about their online activities, and those of their families. 

An important action that worried parents can take is to model good behavior. Children learn from what they see around them, so if their parents are always checking their phones, even if it is for work, they will emulate that activity. Also, engaging with the children on what they are doing on the Internet often goes a long way to alleviating worries, and promoting understanding within families. 
There are many different types of screen time, and all screen time is not created equal. There is time spent online posting photos; and there is time spent researching content for a term paper. There is time spent chatting with friends; and there is time spent reaching out for emotional support. Is 2 hours reading a book on a e-reader a concern to parents or is it just when a child is playing a game? A child’s interests, personality, and individual circumstances need to be considered when thinking about the technology and media diet of children. 

More research is needed and industry must continue to provide tools to assist all users in becoming more aware about the technology use and making informed choices about that use. Ultimately, though, it is the parents who must decide exactly how, when, and with what devices they want their children to engage with technology.