When my daughter, Katelyn, was 8, we bought an iPad for the family. She began using it that same day, firing up video chat to connect with my in-laws in Florida. Soon after, she was messaging friends about homework, Club Penguin, and playdates. Although I was glad that Katelyn could show her grandparents her Girl Scout patches, I worried that things were moving too fast.
Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP, a clinical neuropsychologist at Children’s Health in Dallas, recommends keeping screens away from kids for as long as possible. "You can’t prevent children from using screens, but you can delay it...that's easier than taking them away once a child knows what they are," says Holland, who's also an assistant professor at UT Southwestern Medical.
The negative effects of screen time can take hold from a young age. A 2019 study published in JAMA Pediatrics linked screen time to decreased cognitive and emotional development test scores. According to the study's researchers, who come from the University of Calgary, "higher levels of screen time in children aged 24 and 36 months were associated with poor performance on a screening measure assessing children’s achievement of development milestones at 36 and 60 months, respectively." Yikes!
As it turned out, my daughter was right on track with her peers. A 2017 survey by Common Sense Media—a nonprofit that specializes in evaluating the age-appropriateness of games, movies, books, and more—found that more than 40 percent of American children age 8 years and younger have their own tablet. And the other kids surveyed? Most of them have access to their family's smartphones and tablets.
How should you handle this grade-school surge in screen use? Follow our digital rulebook to find out.
Smartphones and similar devices can give parents a much-needed break by keeping kids entertained, but Holland cautions not to rely on them too heavily—boredom is an important part of childhood development.
Watching a screen doesn't require a lot of cognitive effort, Holland explains. "When screens are used to keep children occupied, they don't use the brain functions required to self-regulate and deal with boredom." It's difficult to pay attention in less stimulating environments, like the classroom or at a family meal, when your brain isn't accustomed to boredom.
With options like Messenger Kids, a messaging app launched by Facebook for children ages 6 to 12, many kids are starting to text at a younger age. "My 7-year-old son, Carter, messages his best friend all the time," says Jennifer Mason, of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. "Often it's just to say hi, but sometimes they chat about Legos or even set up a playdate."
If you do allow your child to chat and text, talk to her about the responsibility it entails. Tell her if you wouldn't say it in person, don't say it through a screen, advise Evie Granville and Sarah Davis, creators of the website and podcast Modern Manners for Moms and Dads. "The safety (and sometimes anonymity) of sitting behind a screen makes us feel detached from the individuals who will be affected by our words. Parents need to repeatedly remind children that their online actions have real-world consequences," write Granville and Davis.
Let your child know that if he receives a text that makes him anxious or is from someone he doesn't know, he should tell you right away. With Messenger Kids, for example, parents are notified if their child reports or blocks a contact, or flags inappropriate content. Parents also have control over their kid's contact list and can check in on what's being discussed, since messages can't be deleted or hidden.
Although you may be worried that texting will actually replace in-person time spent with friends, research on teens from the Center for Children and Families at the University of Texas at Dallas suggests that it extends it. The study found that the majority of texting was with friends.
Your child is probably asking you for apps that her friends play or even downloading them herself. "Be sure you have your accounts set up with parental control over all decisions," says Gwenn O'Keeffe, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and author of CyberSafe.
Unfortunately, you can't rely on the age recommendations in iTunes or Google Play because claims from app developers are unregulated. Instead, see if the app has been reviewed and rated by Common Sense Media. If not? "Play the app yourself for a few minutes to decide whether it's okay," suggests Dr. O'Keeffe.
Be especially careful with apps that have a social-media or direct interactive component, such as My Little Pony and Words With Friends. You'll need to disable that functionality if you don't want your child chatting with strangers. "Newer phones, those running iOS 12 or Android 9 Pie, have decent built-in parental controls," says Sierra Filucci, executive editor of parenting content and distribution at Common Sense Media. "With iOS 12, for example, you can set limits on the types of apps: no social media at all, or only 30 minutes of social media per day."
Set parameters for when he is allowed to text—turning off all electronics 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime will help kids sleep better, for instance.
You can also set time limits within select apps. In Messenger Kids, "sleep mode" lets you render the app inaccessible at certain designated times of the day, such as during dinner or bedtime.
Thanks to Messenger Kids, youngsters can easily conduct video calls on smartphones and tablets, and it's a smart way for you to supervise their chatting. As with any face-to-face talk over a screen, there are privacy issues to consider, from the innocuous (your house is a mess) to the potentially inappropriate (your kid might be walking by the bathroom as you're coming out of the shower).
At the very least, consider setting ground rules: Choose a location in your house for video calls so your kid is not inadvertently exposing family members. She can't answer a video-chat request until after her homework is done. And when you say it's time for the call to be over, she must politely end the conversation. Once I established these parameters, it's been smooth sailing. In fact, Katelyn feels closer to her grandparents since we bought our tablet.
"Sometimes parents think social life isn’t an important factor in smartphone or tablet use, but it can help kids keep in touch," says Common Sense's Filucci. "They're such ubiquitous tools, kids without access to them can feel cut off, socially."
"Painting all screen time with one brush doesn’t do it much justice," says Jason Kahn, Ph.D., a researcher at Boston Children's Hospital and co-founder of Mightier, bioresponsive video games that help kids develop emotional coping skills. Kahn's research indicates that children who are prone to angry outbursts on the playground—crying, yelling, and other maladaptive behaviors—can learn to become less aggressive in the context of a video game, where they can hit reset and regroup when anger occurs.
You can ditch the guilt around screen use in the following scenarios, according to Kahn: one, when your kid is working towards self-improvement in a specific task—such as using a computer to learn to play chess—and two, when it saves your sanity.
"Parents who are less stressed have less stressed kids," says Kahn. "If you're using screen time to, say, make dinner in peace, you're helping your family by protecting your health and wellness. If screen time is carving out space for yourself and reducing your stress level, you’re doing your kid a favor."
Maria Carter contributed to the reporting in this story.