CEDAR PARK (KXAN) — Most afternoons, they sprawl on the gray sectional with their heads buried in their iPads. Cartoons dominate their screens and attention.
It’s a welcome relief from the Texas heat.
There are some peals of laughter. Two brothers, ages 6 and 3, stay completely still. Really, not moving at all. Their eyes fix on their screens.
Little sister, who’s just barely 2 years old, nudges her way to a spot on the couch so she can watch as well.
I look over from the kitchen counter and feel guilty. My kids are glued to the bright, colorful screens and no one is asking for a thing — no complaining that they’re bored, no crying that they’re hungry and no fighting.
During these 20 minutes of quiet, I can make phone calls and have thoughts (ones that make sense), without anyone tugging on me and asking a million questions.
The iPads are educational, right? They’re learning their A-B-Cs, numbers and even reading, so it’s OK — right?
But that hour of screentime just so Mom can get work done has quickly devolved into giving the kids an iPad at the doctor’s office, airport and even just to get a break from the chaos of parenting.
Using screens as pacifiers
You can relate, right? It’s the scene that plays out in many homes across Central Texas and that’s how it was at the Banaski home in Cedar Park.
“It’s too tempting to just hand over the screen so that you can cook dinner, so that you can have five minutes to think or work on something,” said Erica Banaski, sitting in her living room as her daughters watched. “It’s so much easier to do that, but I don’t think it’s the solution.”
Erica is mom to 10-year-old Alex and 4-year-old Sarah. When her girls have screen time, it doesn’t look much different than it does at my house. The girls sit inches apart and are quickly sucked in by what’s on the screen.
Erica got Alex an iPad when she was just a toddler.
“I didn’t really have any limitations and I got her an iPad,” Erica said. “It was great because technology is really beneficial to kids. She taught herself to read on her iPad at 3 years old.”
Over the years, Erica noticed something changed in Alex when she played one of her video games.
“She would feel angry, she would be agitated, she would be moody,” Erica explained. “It was like she was a different person after she walked away from these video games.”
The family had decided to get a PlayStation as a way for her to fit in with her friends and so she would have some common ground. But, it didn’t matter if it was a baseball game or Super Mario Brothers, Alex’ changed personality worried Erica. Even her youngest would beg for it constantly.
Battle of the wills
You’ve probably heard it a few times with your own kids.
“Can I have iPad? Please? Can I have it now?”
Erica heard it a lot from Sarah and when she gave in, she felt that her baby girl wasn’t using her imagination as much.
“She is not willing to play with her toys in the same manner that she would be if she had very minimal screen time,” Erica said.
Parenting in a tech generation
Young kids like mine and Erica’s spend on average more than two hours each day on screens, according to Common Sense Media. The nonprofit is a leading group which gives families tech advice and resources.
Its study showed the amount of time young kids spend on mobile devices tripled from 15 minutes each day in 2013 to 48 minutes in 2017.
Tweens are on screens for about six hours, and teens use their devices for nine hours a day, pointed out another study the group performed.
The study which was published in 2015 surveyed a national sample of 2,658 children ranging in age from 8 to 18 years old. It was conducted for just over a month.
“We’re only learning to parent in a generation that’s had exposure to tech,” explained Mandi Melendez, who is a counselor at Nurture Family Counseling in Cedar Park and a registered play therapist. “If you have a kid, under 10, this is your oldest one — then you’ve never raised a kid without technology.”
Melendez said in her practice she’s seeing more kids with behavior problems linked to screen time. She’s treating some as young as 3 years old.
“They are having trouble at school. They are having trouble with focus. They are struggling to engage — well, they are struggling with attention,” Melendez said.
She highlighted a recent study, published in Preventive Medicine Reports that showed more screen time meant a greater chance of anxiety, depression, eating disorders and attention problems.
Researchers found kids who spend more than seven hours each day on screens are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety than those who are on for an hour. Also, children who have a high use of screens showed less curiosity, self-control and emotional stability.
Participants in the study were the parents of more than 40,000 children who were ages 2 and older and taken from data collected in 2016 by the U.S. Census Bureau. They were contacted by mail at random to find families with children under 17 years old.
“They are not having to struggle through some challenging emotions, because the minute they become upset, we hand them something we distract ourselves with,” Melendez said. “You know, ‘I’m feeling stressed out — I’m going to go scroll social media for a little while,’ right? What we are teaching them is the way to handle your emotions is to ignore them and go do something else.”
How did we parent before technology?
We are all guilty of taking iPads to doctor’s appointments or to the airport. Other parents use it at the grocery store, restaurants and even while hiking trails.
It’s hard to remember. How did parents do it before iPads and smartphones?
“Kids … 20 to 30 years ago, would play outside, go sit down with a book or play with playdough,” Melendez explained. “It’s that self-guided entertainment time that’s really important for maintaining creativity for them. It’s appropriate for their brain development.”
So what should we do?
Melendez says to treat it like candy — a little bit is OK, but a steady diet is not.
Case in point — full-blown meltdowns when you take the screen away. Melendez says that’s the reason kids react so dramatically.
“Their nervous system is being really amped up and excited because shows and apps are really geared to keep them engaged for as long as possible,” she said. “When they have it taken away or shut down, their bodies have been tense and engaged and sometimes nervous or really excited and then they have the power to move. It’s not going to go well.”
The best thing you can do, Melendez says, is have your kids do something physical right away like jump rope, shoot some hoops or have a dance party. The key is getting their bodies moving, which helps release some of that energy.
Working together toward change
What works for one family may not work for another, and change will take time. Melendez is clear about that much.
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Melendez said parents need more information about how the brain is developing as kids at different ages use technology. The American Academy of Pediatrics has set recommendations for screen time by age. Families need to work together toward finding the right balance. Her advice:
- Try a technology fast for 30 days
- Put in place time limits
- Watch with kids so they are not watching alone
- Designate no screen zones in the home (for example, the dinner table and bedrooms)
Melendez explained that one of the biggest challenges is trying to convince parents that they need to change their behavior, too. She said often kids model what their parents are doing so mom and dad need to follow the same advice.
“When we look at success — are those things better? Are families feeling more connected? Do parents feel more empowered to help set boundaries when there is a tech-related issue that is supporting what looks like problematic behavior?” Melendez asked.
Drastic measures mean happier kids
The Banaski family cut out screens, brought them back and decided that taking technology away wasn’t the answer. The family now has very strict screen time rules.
“[Alex] is now allowed one hour per week on Monday and Thursday. We break that up into 30 minutes each day and that 30 minutes is broken up into 15-minute segments,” said Erica.
Sarah is allowed 30 minutes, whether it’s watching TV or being on the iPad at the end of the day after she’s put up all her toys.
The changes are drastic. The mom said now the kids prefer actual toys instead of screens.
“I saw them happier. I saw them more creative. I saw them less obsessed with the screens. The screens were more of an afterthought,” said Erica. “I see them behaving better. I see them more creative. I see them acting more independently. I see them getting along better with each other. That, to me, is success.”
My kids aren’t on screens as much either now. We’ve limited screen time to an hour-and-a-half per week for all three kids.
I’ll be honest, the first week was tough, especially for our oldest. The begging was non-stop and then they just couldn’t figure out what to do, but after a few days, it became easier. We noticed they started playing on their own with their toys and each other.
Yes, but there were lots of tears to get them to this point and they still ask about iPad time, although not every day.
“I think you’ll find that as they spent less time on screen, you don’t have to do anything. The goal is that they are able to come up with ideas of what they want to do on their own,” Melendez said. “They need less constant entertainment because their brains are not so trained for needing constant flashing lights and noises and colors.”
KXAN Live conversation: Cutting back on screen time
KXAN reporter Arezow Doost and counselor Mandi Melendez answered questions live on Facebook and KXAN.com about how families can balance and set boundaries for screen time.