Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development has brought together leading international experts in the fields of media addiction, parenting, education, child psychology and psychiatry to present helpful advice for avoiding problematic technology use during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

More tips for parents and clinicians plus the latest scientific research on what we know about tech addiction were discussed in the popular Ask The Experts weekly seminar via Zoom. Moderated by Dr. Gaya Dowling, PhD (Director, Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Project at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health), an esteemed interdisciplinary panel lent their expertise on how to recognize problematic tech use, how to limit the harmful impacts of excessive screen time, and what families can do to promote positive behavior on-and-offline during this stressful summer of COVID-19. 


Setting limits on screen use—both in regards to content and time—can be a powerful protective factor for children. In one longitudinal study of over 1300 families, we found that children whose parents set screen limits at the beginning of a school year ended up getting more sleep and better grades, had a lower risk of obesity, showed less aggression, and demonstrated more positive and prosocial behavior. Parents might not realize what a profound effect they’re having on their kids, which can make them feel powerless about their children’s media use, but the data show that setting clear limits is beneficial across a wide range of health and wellness indicators. – Douglas A. Gentile, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Iowa State University, and co-author of Game On! Sensible Answers about Video Games and Media Violence


Tweens and teens are spending an incredible amount of time alone in their bedrooms right now, which means they’re away from the rest of the family and may feel they have carte blanche when it comes to their digital behavior.  Make a rule, starting now, that screens are no longer allowed in the bedroom—period.  Two things will happen: (1) your child will spend less time on their devices and more time with you, and (2) your child will become less likely to encounter inappropriate internet content. Remember, bedroom starts with the word “bed,” which means it’s a place to sleep, and family room starts with the word “family,” which means it’s a place to share quality time with the ones you love. – Tom Kersting is a Licensed psychotherapist and the author of the brand new book, Disconnected: How To Protect Your Kids From The Harmful Effects Of Device Dependency (Baker Books, 8/4/20)


Children love to point out when we slip up, and when it comes to tech overuse, they’re right to do so. After all, you can’t tell your kids to stop playing Fortnite while you’re busy checking Facebook. The best thing parents can do for their children when it comes to screen time is model good behavior, which means taking steps to become “indistractable.” Let your kids know what you’re doing to manage screen use in your own life, and don’t be afraid to get vulnerable and show them that you face similar challenges with technology. The more you talk with your kids about the costs of too much tech use, and the more you make decisions with them, as opposed to for them, the more willing they’ll be to listen to your guidance. – Nir Eyal, former Stanford Lecturer and author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life


Managing screen time is all about managing boundaries. Make sure you designate chunks of the day—during dinnertime, for instance, and the hours before bed and after waking up—as “no screen” periods. Boundaries shouldn’t just be about time, though; try to keep parts of your home, like the bedroom, screen free, as well. If you absolutely need to have a computer or TV in the bedroom, don’t use it in the hour or two before going to sleep. The bluish light tells our brains that it’s daytime, which means we’re inducing jetlag every time we use our screens late at night or when we should be asleep. – Adam Alter, PhD, Associate Professor of Marketing, Robert Stansky Teaching Excellence Faculty Fellow, NYU Stern School of Business


Social media can have a negative impact on self-esteem, especially in kids and teens, as it allows us to hide behind screens and present the lives we want others to think we have. We often see pictures of vacations, fun activities, and photoshopped bodies, which can lead to unwelcome comparisons and feelings of inadequacy. It’s important for you and your children to recognize your triggers for turning to technology, and it’s essential to take breaks if you find yourself getting upset, writing rude comments, thinking negative thoughts, or garnering happiness from others’ pain. Turn off your phone, TV, and computer for an hour a day and use that time to enjoy a screen-free activity like talking with your family, going for a walk, or reading a book. – Kimberly Hershenson, NY-based psychotherapist, LCSW


Allowing a set time for your child’s technology use in the morning and evening will help them get it out of their system and move on with the rest of their day. At home, be sure to have tech-free times (dinner, for example) and tech-free spaces (like the bedroom), and when the phone isn’t in use, make sure your children put it away. Out of sight, out of mind! – Dr. Daria J. Kuss, Associate Professor in Psychology, Nottingham Trent University, UK


It’s entirely legitimate for parents to set limits on safe Internet use for their children, both for their physical and mental health. Make sure your children take frequent breaks from their screens, and join them for regular off-line activities, too. In order to limit distractions, parents should keep an eye on the number of apps with active push notifications on their children’s devices, and they should make sure that any notifications are silenced at night in order to promote restful sleep. Keep an eye out for warning signs like a reversal in your child’s sleep-wake rhythm, recurrent headaches, or increased online time at the expense of their usual interests. – Dr. Sophia Achab, MD, PhD- In charge of facility treating Internet-related disorders ReConnecte at University Hospitals of Geneva- Lecturer at Faculty of Medicine, University of Geneva, Switzerland


When two people feel safe and cared about in the presence of each other, their bodies release specific neurochemicals in the limbic portion of the brain. This experience of limbic resonance keeps us feeling regulated emotionally and physically, and there’s unfortunately no digital substitute for it. While COVID-19 means young people are communicating online more than ever, research has shown a correlation between excessive screen time and depression, which means that it’s imperative for parents to prioritize family time without screens. Encourage your children to be a part of the conversation about values and health, and allow them to help develop the rules around screen use at home. If they feel that you want to spend time with them, are interested in their perspectives and experiences, and are willing to negotiate (within certain non-negotiable boundaries), then your teens will turn to you more and more to meet their social needs. – Dr. Hilarie Cash, Co-Founder and Chief Clinical Officer of reSTART Life, PLLC, the first residential treatment facility in the US designed to treat Internet and video game addicts, founded in 2009


It’s normal for kids to feel angry, bored, or sad, but if you comfort your children with screen time whenever they’re in a bad mood, they’ll never learn to cope with those emotions in a natural way. Instead, they may get used to—or even addicted to—their devices. Rather than hand your child a screen next time they’re in a bad mood, find out what’s bothering them and see what you can do to help change that. Sometimes, all you need to do is show your child that you care and give them a hug. – Hans-Jürgen Rumpf, PhD, Associate Professor at the University of Lübeck, Germany


Screen time can be a useful way to maintain social connections when we can’t be face-to-face with our friends and loved ones. For instance, virtual sleepovers, watch parties, and multiplayer online games are all great ways for children to remain connected with their peers. Not all online interactions are equal, though. Mindlessly scrolling social media feeds or playing hours of video games alone or with strangers, for example, won’t make your child feel more connected; in fact, these activities may actually increase children’s feelings of isolation. So, keep an eye on how your child uses their screen time, and be sure to guide them towards activities that increase their feeling of connectedness with friends and family. – Kira Bailey, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Ohio Wesleyan University


Many parents experience difficulties in handling their children’s digital media use. You may find that your child gets angry if you try to reduce their screen time, or you may feel helpless about how to handle the situation. If you notice that screen use is becoming a permanent and troublesome issue with high levels of distress, it might be helpful to talk to a professional. Don’t be afraid – seeking help is a normal and healthy thing to do! – Hans-Jürgen Rumpf, PhD, Associate Professor at the University of Lübeck, Germany


Children often spend their time online when they are alone. While this can of course be a consequence of normal daily routines, it’s still especially important to monitor what our children are doing when online. Instead of (or besides) monitoring, however, it might be even better to get involved and participate in your child’s online activities; i.e. watching videos or playing video games together. Sharing these activities would not only make it possible to track what they are doing, but more importantly to spend time with them, to get familiar with the games they are involved in and understand their interest and motives in the online world. This could not only serve as a basis for further discussion on their online experiences, but it could also help in setting rules together for regulating their online activities. – Dr. Zsolt Demetrovics, Professor of Psychology, ELTE Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary; Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Behavioral Addictions

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, our devices were important parts of our daily lives, but now, it’s practically impossible to imagine getting through the day without them. That ubiquity can tempt parents to throw their hands in the air and give up on managing their children’s screen time, but the reality is that, especially for kids with developing brains, the dangers of technology addiction and over-reliance are real. We hope these thirteen tips can help you and your family avoid some of the negative impacts that come with excessive screen use, and guide you towards healthy, prosocial ways to balance technology and family life in the days, months, and years to come.

About Children and Screens

Since its inception in 2013, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, has become one of the nation’s  leading non-profit organizations dedicated to advancing and supporting interdisciplinary scientific research, enhancing human capital in the field, informing and educating the public, and advocating for sound public policy for child health and wellness.  For more information, see www.childrenandscreens.com or write to info@childrenandscreens.com