Screens of all kinds can become addictive to a child even if they are not considered addictive in the clinical sense. The instant gratification of the phone, table, or videogame infiltrates the brain’s dopamine reward system. As the brain gets an instant “charge” from reading a text, looking at a social media post, succeeding in a video game, or doing work on a Tablet without much effort, the natural process of brain development can be disrupted.
The child’s brain, all the way through and beyond adolescence, is naturally templated to develop through many slower, more “difficult” interactions with its environment. The brain builds better, stronger, and more varied social-emotional pathways, for instance, through a more “natural” kind of learning and life than excessive use of screens and social media allows.
Most of us sense this, but it’s hard to know the line between healthy and unhealthy screen time for our particular child. Often, rules of thumb develop but are difficult to enforce (life gets busy, and stuff slips through the cracks). And, of course, there is a lot of pressure on kids to use devices from other kids, schools, and even parents themselves (unwittingly perhaps) as devices are used and modeled for children at the dining room table.
Three books on boys do a great job of laying out some rules of thumb, as well as the science behind the suggestions. These are: Raising Boys by Design (2011), by Gregory Jantz and co-authors; Saving Our Sons (2017) by Michael Gurian; and Boys Adrift (2014), by Leonard Sax. Each of these books provides science-based suggestions from different angles. They support:
- very little or no screen time for children under two;
- few or no video games for kids on school nights;
- all devices kept in public spaces in the home rather than in the kids’ room;
- no use of screens/devices for at least an hour before bedtime;
- limited screen time (Tablet, TV, Computer, Phone) on weekdays with an emphasis, during that use, on educational programming; and
- no phones for kids until parents absolutely can’t resist giving the child a phone any longer (hopefully around 12 or 13 years old or older).
Meanwhile, each expert also suggests limiting our adult use of screens, especially phones, in front of children, especially at “family times” like the dinner table, road trips, family game nights, etc. Excessive adult use of screens sets kids up to over-use screens in an “addictive” way during childhood and later in life.