Screen Time: What’s Best For Our Kids

My son, fortunately, attends a top-tier academy with strict academic requirements.  My family and I would settle for nothing less.  When I finish work in the afternoon, my mom (who is a lifesaver) and I look over homework, make revisions, and help when needed.  This process often takes around 2 hours…a day.  The principle of his school is adamant that children should only be allowed to use screen devices (tablets, smart phones, etc.) on weekends.  Seems a bit harsh, right?  Well, I am not quite as rigid, but it seems that some degree of limitation is necessary.

Screen time has been blamed for everything from mental health issues, social instability, and even some degree of developmental problems in both children and teens.  The issue has become so prevalent that the Journal of the American Association devoted significant resources in exploring the issue.  Is there an adverse effect on kids who are in front of a tablet, video game, or t.v.?  Does the age of the child play a role in determining what is appropriate? It seems that the results are actually a mixed bag and depend largely on age. 

A recently published JAMA Pediatrics analysis of dozens of past studies on screen time and academic performance suggests that pondering “how much” may be the wrong question, even when nearly half of all say they’re online about constantly.  Welcome to the digital age.  For us middle-aged folks, it seems like the entire modern world is often unrecognizable. This study found that the types of screens children are using and their age—rather than the total amount of time, has the most significant impact on learning, behavior, and overall academic performance.

There is actually, according to this analysis, some advantage of watching television and playing video games for young children because they tend to learn by repetition and observation, and teens generally do not reap the same result.  Linguistic ability appears to be aided in young children by listening and watching.  In fact, it also appears that teens suffer adverse academic consequences when allotted more than a small amount of any screen time.  The researchers drew this conclusion on a randomized basis, and the science appears accurate in my estimation. 

I am a child custody attorney, not a child psychologist.  However, having dealt with hundreds of parents and children in tough legal battles, there are some observations that seem to be beyond dispute.  So, here is my short list of what I can say with certainty.

1. Children who are given unfettered access to screen-based devices suffer not only academically, but behaviorally. Unlimited access is never a good thing.

2. Parents can use the reward of screen time to increase their childrens’ drive to do homework, and do it well.  It is simple Pavlovian psychology.  For example, “Sure you can use the IPad for 90 minutes if you do all of your assignment correctly”. This method has worked quite well with my 10 year old son.

3. Some degree of time with the tablet/phone is not detrimental, so long as it is content appropriate.

I would advise any person seeking custody or increased visitation to be prepared to answer simple questions about their plan to help their child succeed in the real world–and the landscape of modern electronics.  If any good lawyer starts to grill you about your plan and your answer is “I really haven’t thought much about it”, you just got dinged a way you won’t see until the court rules.  As is often said, a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.

Always be prepared.  Raising children and implementing simple rules, with balance, demonstrates to the court that you are fully vested in your child, that you are dedicated to their well-being.  After all, that is what you are fighting for and, if prepared, will more likely win control of their upbringing.  When the dust settles, you will realize that you are in control of every aspect of their livelihood.

Matthew Poole is a single father and child custody attorney located in Northeast Jackson, Mississippi.  He has managed over 1,300 domestic cases since 2004.