Kids and Screen Time: Don't Let It Be a Battleground

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Many well-meaning parents believe that the time their children spend on phones, tablets and other electronic devices gets in the way of other, more healthy activities, such as playing outdoors or hanging out with other kids in person. And when parents try to limit screen time. it often results in conflict between them and their tech-loving kids.

But, surprisingly, a closer look at the scientific evidence doesn't show much support for the belief that large amounts of time on electronic devices has a negative effect on kids' mental or physical health.

Carolyn Ievers-Landis, PhD, a clinical psychologist at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s, discusses why parents can relax about their kids' use of electronic devices and how to keep screen time from becoming a parent-child battleground.


Podcast Transcript

Macie Jepson

Hi, I’m Macie Jepson.

Pete Kenworthy

And I'm Pete Kenworthy. And this is Healthy@UH. So, a bit of a controversial topic today. We're talking about screen time. So, games, social media, YouTube, Netflix, the options, of course, are endless. But at what cost when our kids are spending a lot of time staring at a screen. Right? It seems like this is always in the news. You remember when Prince Harry actually came out and said Fortnite should be banned.

Macie Jepson

That was months ago and people are still talking about that. You know, he really made some people mad. He said that the game was created to addict people and to keep people in front of their computer. He even went as far as to say that the creators were irresponsible. So, a controversial decision also, the World Health Organization classifying game addiction as an actual disorder because it leaves gamers, they say, impaired. Their control is impaired.

Pete Kenworthy

Yeah. So, I always thought as a parent of three that there should be some sort of limit on how much time a child spends on a screen. Right? For health reasons. Right? Like they're, they need sleep. Right? To be ready for school or they need to get up and get moving. You know, get outside and play. So, just to break it down here. At my house, I have a 17-year-old daughter who I see very infrequently. Right? She's a very busy kid. And when she is home, she probably heads up to her room around 8 o'clock, doesn't go to sleep till around 11 or 12, but I know she's pretty much sitting in bed on her phone. Right? Twin 12-year-olds who, twin 12-year-old boys who are on their phones all the time. Right? They get their homework done, and they spend their time watching YouTube videos or playing games with their friends.

Macie Jepson

In our house, it's always about setting boundaries. And when I let our children set their own boundaries, they're watching Netflix for hours and hours. And they have a legitimate excuse in their minds because they need downtime. Right? And, and I get that. But you give them an inch and they're going to take three to four hours on that screen, which is a problem.

Pete Kenworthy

And, of course, we're not the experts in this topic. We are parents, so maybe we think we are. We have kids, and we've raised them, but we're going to bring in an expert here. Joining us is University Hospitals’ Rainbow Babies and Children's clinical psychologist, Carolyn Ievers-Landis. And thanks for joining us. I have a feeling you're about to blow our minds on this topic. Screen time isn't bad?

Carolyn Ievers-Landis

I am about to blow your minds. And the reason is I am sick and tired of people fighting with their kids about electronics. And it's not going away. We have to figure out a different way. And we have some research now that shows that it's not as bad as people have been making it out to be, even for sleep. Some sleep research also. So, what I would like to see is people working with kids to figure out how to use electronics and screens to make their lives better and even to make their family lives better rather than have it be a source of contention and fighting and misery. You know, I have literally had patients, some of my teen patients, become almost homicidal because parents have threatened to take away screens. I mean, it's at that level. So, I want something to change.

Macie Jepson

I want to talk about an Oxford study, but you just said kids becoming homicidal.

All right, there is a deep connection to their screen. That is very disturbing to me.

Carolyn Ievers-Landis

That is disturbing. And that is, you have to remember, I am a clinical psychologist. I see extremes in our society. There are extremes that these are, this was a child that was on the spectrum, you know, autism spectrum disorder and felt like something was being taken away that was his only form of solace. So, what can we do so we don't get to that point? Because screens do offer a lot to our children. And how can we give them that, but without it, as you said, taking over their lives and getting to the point where we're having situations like that?

Pete Kenworthy

So, let's start with the perceived negative. Right?

Carolyn Ievers-Landis

Right.

Pete Kenworthy

The negative that all parents have heard about or, or, or they think is negative. And, and I'll reference the study that Macie talked about. This Oxford study analyzed 17,000 teens. Right? And they looked at things like depression and mood and self-esteem and psychosocial functioning. Right? Tell us about that study and kind of what was found there. Cause it was really done with an open mind. Right? Trying to figure out if all of these commentators are right, that screen time is bad.

Carolyn Ievers-Landis

Right. Right. And you know, I like this because it's different than some of the other studies I've seen that almost seems set up to prove that screen time is bad. This was showing that regardless of screen time, people's psychological functioning did not significantly relate to the amount of screen time. And so that is important because I think everybody thinks that, oh, the longer you're on screen time, the more depression you'll have, the more anxiety you'll have, all these problems. But that's not necessarily the case. So, what's more important is to figure out when and how screens are being used and about the relationship between parents and kids regarding screens.

Pete Kenworthy

I know in that study it talked about screen time doesn't impact a child's well-being. And I want to ask you about that term well-being. Right? It seems like it's a subjective term. Right? What's the science behind quote/unquote well-being?

Carolyn Ievers-Landis

Well, well-being is measures of psychological functioning. So, measures of mood, measures of anxiety, measures of adjustment. So, that's what well-being means. And those are typically what's used in psychology for whether or not something is good for you or bad for you. So, if somebody has their well-being does not relate to screen time that means that you would also think there's not an association, there's not a significant association, therefore kids that are using longer screen time might be very well adjusted psychologically and otherwise.

Macie Jepson

There are times that that screen time though leads to a child who is not well adjusted. Right? And how do we figure out how to handle that?

Carolyn Ievers-Landis

And I don't think that we can blame the screen for that, the screen time. And I feel like there's too much of this cause and effect going on, but we can pay attention to what our children are doing. And I'm not saying that you shouldn't pay attention to what your child is doing. I have also had patients that have had very negative things happen by videotaping inappropriate things and, you know, very, very negative things--going to juvie, some of my patients because of what happened relating to screens and texting and things like that. So, paying attention is one thing, but trying to just set up an arbitrary time or limits without considering your specific child, their circumstances, what they want. That's what I'm talking about.

Pete Kenworthy

Haven't there been though, you know, we talk about this Oxford study, but I feel like there have been other studies, at least from what I've, feel like I've heard it or feel like I've seen that screen time does impact things with sleep. Right? Having too much screen time right before sleep. Or you can become addicted to screen time and then it impacts your productivity. And then we go back to the World Health Organization claim, right, that Macie talked about at the beginning that says gaming addiction is a disorder that leaves gamers with impaired control. Like there's all these other things out there that I don't know if they contradict what you're saying, but they kind of do.

Carolyn Ievers-Landis

Well, and I'm glad that you brought that up because there also is research in the sleep world that shows that the only problems with screen time is texting or, you know, electronic equipment is texting or video game use. But kids that were just watching videos or Netflix, it did not affect their sleep onset latency. So, the sleep literature is not like a clear, like screen time is horrible and you shouldn't have screens at all. And if you have your blue light filter on your screen, you are not affecting your melatonin production. So, you know, I'm an expert in behavioral sleep medicine. I actually let my patients have their screens in bed depending upon how they're using them if the blue light filter is on, and if they're just maybe looking at YouTube or looking at Netflix for a little bit and if they are motivated to fall asleep and get enough sleep for school.

Pete Kenworthy

So, you're saying, the screen, just watching videos or movies or things like that or are fine, but the texting, there's emotions involved. Right? Is that, is that what it is?

Carolyn Ievers-Landis

Right. I think with texting, what I would hypothesize is kind of the back and forth of it. Like you might be falling asleep but then your friend keeps texting you so you keep kind of trying to stay awake so you can keep the communication going. And you know, also with video games, obviously you want to keep going faster, better, going onto the next level. So, those are problems plus, it's very adrenaline surge there for that. So, I feel like we need to be a little bit more discerning. And there is quite controversial in terms of the term addiction. Like this word is kind of thrown around like, oh, electronic addiction, gaming addiction. And I think we have to be really careful about what that means. I mean, that's a very scientific term. It means about that you build up a tolerance to something, you need something more and more. You have withdrawal when you don't have it. I don't see that with the typical person. Yes. Maybe some kids are using it as a coping tool, and it's kind of negative coping because it's taking over their entire life. But that's not the same as addiction. But I think that professionals disagree on that, you know, but the general public has kind of pulled up on that term, and it's being used a lot.

Macie Jepson

Doctor, could you talk us through a conversation between a parent and a child when it's become an unhealthy balance? Could you, could you talk us through that?

Carolyn Ievers-Landis

I feel like before you get to that point, there should have been so many conversations as to how do you use your screen? What's appropriate to view and what's to do? You know, are you getting stuff done you need to get done? Are you getting homework done? Are you interacting with the family at all? Like are you getting enough sleep? I mean, there's so many conversations before it gets to the point. But let's say for whatever reason it's gotten to that unhealthy point. That, and it depends upon the age of the child, but I think that needs to be a democratic type of discussion, talking with your kid. What do you use a screen for? How do you enjoy it? A lot of kids will find that it's calming for them to look at, obviously, videos and things like that. They're doing that. They're not doing relaxation strategies, progressive muscle relaxation. They are looking at YouTube videos of kittens or whatever. And so, that child is letting you know, I need to calm down. I'm stressed out. So, there might be, say it's like, OK, well I think it's fine for you to use it like that but maybe we could think of some other things like going for a walk or maybe talking to a friend or talking to me. Like what are other things? Because maybe three or four hours of that is cutting into other things you could be doing.

Macie Jepson

So, calming a child down is a benefit to screen time. What are some other benefits?

Carolyn Ievers-Landis

Other benefits are communication with peers. And this is where our world is so different. I also have an18 year old who's a senior in high school and I have a college student. And kids don't get together in person anymore hardly ever. It is very rare. We used to go over to each other's houses and hang out and watch MTV or whatever. That's what we did when we were in high school. Now, they get on their games, and they talk while they're playing their video games.

They do this on the weekends, once in a while during the week if everybody has their homework done. This is a connection. I also have a lot of patients that are a little unusual. They don't find people that are like them in their school. They're finding people who, or even young adults, who can't find anyone who is like them where they're living. Or they live with their parents, and they're very isolated. They find people to talk to. And, you know, this is obviously nothing new, you know, or earth shattering, but that's why kids get so upset if you arbitrarily take things like that away. That's literally their social life where they're texting back and forth or Snapchatting or things. So, how can they use that and be connected to peers but in a way that's not going to, so they're not sleeping four hours a night so that they're not, you know, failing school? And believe me, I see kids that are failing school. I see kids who are sleeping four hours a night. So, I see that whole population, and I still don't take away their electronics. And I don't recommend that parents do.

Macie Jepson

Because the issue isn't necessarily the electronics.

Carolyn Ievers-Landis

Yes.

Macie Jepson

There are underlying issues that need to be addressed.

Carolyn Ievers-Landis

Right. Exactly. So yeah. Do they have anxiety? Do they have untreated depression? What else is going on with them? And they see this as a lifeline. I mean, to have that taken away from you that your social connections, your way of calming yourself down, that is why kids, I mean, I hear so often they just become ballistic when parents like, they always-- parents love to ground kids and take away their electronics for like a day, two days, three days. And I kind of understand that. And I seem to remember, recall doing that maybe when my daughter was much younger. I've never done that with my son ever. Like he's never used electronic in a way that has concerned me. So, I feel like we have to be, think about that. Like, why are we taking away when they're most upset or having a bad time, all their connection to their friends and their way of calming down? We're taking that away. And that worries me as a psychologist.

Pete Kenworthy

That's interesting because that's what we do. Right? If our kids misbehave, we take your phone for a day. Right? It's a great threat if nothing else. And we think as parents, well, it's going to make them change their behavior. And the truth is, right, you look back and then it doesn't change the behavior. Right? Take away their phone for the day, they're still going to screw up, and it's still going to be things that they do. So, is this, is this a curmudgeon thing? Is this an old person thing?

Carolyn Ievers-Landis

Yes.

Pete Kenworthy

Is it a power thing for parents that I have power over you? I can tell you two hours a day, one hour a day, whatever it is. And, or is it something, like I said, you know, the curmudgeon. Is it when I was your age I didn't, you know, I went outside and played? Well, we didn't have handheld devices to do these things when I was a kid. Right? So, what is it? The problem isn't the screen. Is the problem the parents?

Carolyn Ievers-Landis

I feel like the problem is yes, it's kind of a clash of cohorts. It's like a cohort effect. And we're not used to having that. We used to go like walk next door or drive over to our friend's house, but they don't have that. They're totally isolated and some of them can't even go outside; their neighborhood is so dangerous, they can't even go outside. And I mean I even gave an entire lecture, grand rounds talking about sleep phase delay in teens and explaining why we needed later school start times. And one of the physicians after my entire talk where I said teens have 1:00 am to 9:00 am circadian rhythms, da da da, he was like, well, it’s electronics. It's the electronics. We need to take. And I'm like, what? Have you not been listening? Like I feel like the older of us and, you know, my age and older just have this thing like electronics are evil, and we need to get over it because this is the way it's going to be. And we are going to have so much conflict with our children, with our grandchildren if we don't start to think about how to integrate these healthily, you know, into our lives.

Macie Jepson

As we wrap things up, it sounds like a big part of this is respecting your child and starting those conversations early and those boundaries early, and then you'll see the behaviors that can be troublesome.

Carolyn Ievers-Landis

I agree. And think about it. If the parent is completely controlling this, and I have a lot of parents, even with high school students where they'll take their phone away, you know, and put it away at night. What happens when they go to college? They're going to have this, and we say this for many things, but they need to learn how to regulate that and how to still get sleep and things like that with the world they live in with electronics. So, we need to help them regulate that and kind of brainstorm with them. How can you do it?

Pete Kenworthy

We could probably talk about this for hours and hours.

Carolyn Ievers-Landis

We could. We could.

Pete Kenworthy

We appreciate your time, though. Thanks so much for being here.

Carolyn Ievers-Landis

All right. Thank you very much.

Pete Kenworthy

You can find our podcasts, of course, on iTunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts,

Macie Jepson

And as always, for more health news, advice from our medical experts and Healthy@UH podcasts, go to UHHospitals.org/blog.

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