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  • Dr. Rebecca A. Thomas

Tweens, Teens, and Screen Time

We are moving on in our discussion for our kids' use of screens of all types. We have previously addressed the youngest ages, so this time we'll first talk about the 'tweens'; kids from 8-12 years of age.


One good source for parents, educators and advocates for children and adolescents was referred to several times in the American Psychological Association's Monitor publication I used to gather the data for these newspaper articles. It is Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that appears to have good recommendations about all kinds of media; books, movies, as well as some education sites that might be of interest to parents particularly at this time of isolation due to the Corona virus. Additionally they are publishing ongoing research studies (https://www.commonsensemedia.org/).


It is alarming that studies found that 8-12 year olds in the United States are on screens for an average of 4 hours, 44 minutes each day. These numbers do not count time that kids use screens for work at school or for homework. Nope, they're just talking about entertainment time.


But what was thought-provoking to me was to find that there is a substantial disparity in media use based on socioeconomic status and it doesn't read the way I thought it would. Results show that if the 8-12 years old was from a high-income family, their average use is 1 hour, 50 minutes less of media each day than kids the same age form low income families. Some how I thought that higher income families would have more types of high end media devices available to their kids and their kids would be tempted to indulge.


There are reasons for concern, as studies (showing correlational, not necessarily causation) show that 8-12 year olds who indulge in too much screen time scored lower on cognitive assessments. Additionally, it was noted that we should consider combining the excess screen time with the likelihood of too little sleep adding problems with impulsivity to the mix. Again, this should raise our eyebrows, as impulsivity and inattention are hallmarks of AD/HD. Hopefully excessive screen time is always considered in the mix by parents, mental health, and medication providers before making a serious mental health diagnosis that usually calls for medication.


And last, but not least, the teen years. What kind of information are we learning about the teen years and their use of screens? The Common Sense Media research report published in 2019 states the teens average 7 hours, 22 minutes a day of screen time that doesn't include time for homework or work at school. Yikes! That's significantly more time than the 8-12 year olds who clocked in at 4 hours, 44 minutes.


And again, it shows that there is a disparity in screen use with kids from poorer families spending the most time on screens. It is suggested that this may be due in part to parents protecting their kids in poorer neighborhoods that are not safe. Another study found that kids who lived in such neighborhoods had a 40 to 60% higher likelihood of high screen use. Higher income families may have more alternatives for their kids' time in the form of extracurricular activities and safer recreational activities.


Most of us realize that there is a strong correlation between screen time and obesity. More time sitting in front of the TV in particular seems to have a high correlation with a higher BMI (measuring body fat). Also, multiple studies also found that screen use of more than two hours a day correlates to depressive symptoms. Moderate evidence links screen time to poorer quality of life, higher caloric intake and less-healthy diets. However, evidence has been weak in linking screen time to other problems, such as behavior issues, anxiety, and low self-esteem.


Keep in mind that a lot depends on how much time kids are spending on media devices and what they're watching. Parental involvement and oversight remains crucial. Parents should know that what consistently has been found, is that the best mental health and cognitive outcomes for teens comes from the combination of at least and hour of physical activity each day, 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night, and less than 2 hours of recreational screen use a day. That would be a good goal to set because sadly few adolescent meet all three criteria.


In truth, the research is just getting started regarding this 'screen time issue'. The National Institutes of Health funded the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (ABCD) in 2015. This is a longitudinal study on teen brain and behavioral development in the United Sates. They recruited more than 10,000 children who were 9 to 10 years old at the time and will follow them to young adulthood collecting lots of pertinent data along the way. For now, let's consider the correlational data available that we can use to guide us in raising physically and emotionally healthy kids. We are all learning how to effectively integrate all this amazing technology into our lives and the rate of development in the past few years has put us a bit behind in the learning curve. Hopefully this information will be of help to the Moms and Dads of our community.





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