Most of the time, Emry Santana is all smiles. The seven-year-old gets a big kick out of martial arts and Cub Scouts. But he’s a bigger fan of watching YouTube and he can’t get enough of the video game Roblox. He loves the iPad so much he never wants to get off it, not even if Alexa tells him to.
“It is an ongoing battle,” says Kyla Santana, a Fremont mother of two. “He ignores us when we tell him to put it away, wakes up early to use it in the morning before we get up, and tries to get extra time for doing extra chores or being extra helpful. He would do it all day long if we let him.”
The battle over screen time between parents and kids is now being fought on more fronts than ever before as devices multiply, schools require children to use technology for homework and every place from the car to BART to the gas station has a screen. Kids under nine spend about two hours a day in front of computer, phone or television screens, an amount that has held steady in recent years, according to Common Sense Media.
In the Santana household, the rules of engagement are this: Kyla sets limits and Emry tries to break them. Officially, he’s allowed one hour of screen time a day during the week, more on weekends. But none of it is enough for him.
“I believe too much screen time is detrimental, so I do feel strongly about maintaining limits on it,” says Santana, who works as an occupational therapist for the Contra Costa County Office of Education. “It takes away from time kids need for physical and imaginative play and social interaction.”
Pediatricians continually warn about the dangers of too much tech use. But as life in the Bay Area gets more high-tech, it’s hard for parents to hold their ground. Experts say many children get handed iPads before they turn 1, which the American Academy of Pediatrics frowns upon. The academy recommends limiting screen use to an hour a day for children ages 2 to 5. For older children, doctors advise that children get at least one hour of exercise before they log on to a device. Otherwise, the screen takes over the day.
“It’s addictive,” says David Wanderman, a pediatrician with Stanford Children’s Health. “Anything that gives you a dopamine hit makes you feel good so that it makes you want to do it again and again. Social media and video games trigger that reward response.”
When Emry uses the iPad, he’s completely absorbed by the world of the game. Or as he puts it, “I’m a technophile, because tech is fun.”
“It’s amazing how quiet and still he gets when he’s looking at a screen,” notes his mother, “the rest of the day he’s always squirming.”
Doctors caution that tech usage can have serious health consequences for growing bodies and brains.
“There is increasing evidence that technology, and specifically computer, cell phone and tablet use, is having a negative impact on children of all ages,” warns Keith Fabisiak, assistant chief of Pediatrics at Kaiser Permanente’s Santa Clara Medical Center. “Decreased sleep in children exposed to these devices is one of the biggest concerns as adequate sleep each night is necessary for proper brain development as a child grows.”
Excess screen time also has been linked to increased risks of childhood obesity. Almost 19% of American youth ages two to 19 were classified as obese in 2015-16, the latest data available. That’s the highest rate ever documented, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics.
Still, many parents use screen time as a bargaining chip to get kids to sit still and behave. If you have ever been stuck in a never-ending supermarket checkout line with a cranky child, a smart phone can seem like a miracle cure.
“It keeps them engaged and quiet like very few things, plus it’s portable, but there’s also a price to pay if you rely on it too much,” says Santana, adding that Emry gets whiny, irritable and unfocused after iPad time.
Ryan Hughes says his daughter Delilah, 3, is so entranced by Doc McStuffins videos that she often refuses to give the iPad back. She tries to sweet talk her dad into more screen time by saying “pretty please” and “I love you.” Once, she took a swing at him with the iPad, earning a big time out.
“She wants to use it all the time. She says it’s her iPad and I can’t take it away,” says Hughes, who lives in Livermore and allows Delilah 40 minutes a day of iPad time. “I have to explain that daddy bought it so that means it’s mine.”
Experts say there’s no secret to ending battles. Parents simply have to make rules — and stick to them. And, parents need to be good role models by curbing their own use around their children.
“The key is never negotiate it,” says Wanderman. “Holding the line is the hardest part.”
Melanie Stanwood doesn’t let her seven-year-old daughter watch television during the week, even if Ella pleads with her. She also doesn’t let her use a smart phone or iPad.
“I think too much screen time is bad for them,” says the Livermore mother of two. “Ella does like TV and she does beg for that. But we have a rule that during the school week she can’t watch anything. If we have set rules, she knows she can’t ask and the less we allow her, the less we hear about it.”
If the first grader gets bored, they encourage her to read or draw or play outside.
Of course many schools now require children to spend time using high-tech devices with screens. Computer lab often begins in kindergarten and many older children use laptops in school every day for hours. Homework is often a mix of paper worksheets and computer programs.
“Schools make it hard because they make it so that kids need the technology for their assignments,” as Nancy Fong, a San Jose mother of three, notes. Fong says she fights back by getting her kids, aged 12 to 18, outside as much as possible to hike or bike.
“It’s the bane of modern parenting,” says Fong, “How do we get them to disconnect? For me, the antidote is the outdoors. I feel like the only time we disconnect is outside. You have to go places where you can get their minds off of social media.”
Fong fears kids who spend too much time online are more likely to feel lonely. A recent Common Sense study showed that 70% of teens check social media several times a day, 38% use it multiple times an hour and 16% are on it “almost constantly.”
She forbids phone use during meals — for both kids and parents. When the family eats out, all phones are placed at the center of the table. It was not a popular decision.
“It’s been a huge struggle but I think they eventually start to understand that it is not good for them,” says Fong. “It’s a paradox, but social media has actually isolated us.”
If parents really want to limit screen time, experts say, they had better examine their own habits. That way the whole family can help each other through what may be a painful period of withdrawal.
“Write down the rules and time limits for the whole family and include the children in the decision making,” says Douglas Balster, chief of pediatrics at Kaiser Permanente’s Redwood City Medical Center. “This will increase your child’s and your own awareness of media use.”
Out of desperation, Fong has even taken the phones away. Briefly.
“The push back makes it really hard,” she admits ruefully. “But it helps us reset and they can get it back when they realize that they can live without their phones for a little while.”
Parenting: The endless battle over kids and screen time