How much is too much? As parents, we grapple with this question on a non-stop basis.

As parents, we know that the onset of Covid-19 has exposed our kids to unprecedented amounts of time in front a multitude of tech devices. As if this wasn’t an issue pre-pandemic, now it’s impossible to rule out screen time completely with social and academic lives so entrenched in it.

Plus, while we continue to work from home, screens are a bit of a crutch.

So how is all this screen time effecting our kids?

A Lesson On The Developing Brain for Parents… 

A 2019 study published in JAMA Pediatrics revealed alarming evidence brain structure may be altered in kids with extended screen use. Scientists looked at brain MRIs in 47 preschoolers and found that prolonged screen time was associated with differences in brain structure in areas related to language and literacy development.

According to David Anderson, Ph.D. , a clinical psychologist and senior director at the Child Mind Institute it’s especially important, “to be very cautious when using screens with young kids as [they] are in a critical developmental period [and] require face-to-face interaction to reach developmental milestones including building language and social skills, developing empathy, understanding emotion, and building stamina to navigate personal situations.”

According to a 2019 article published by Mayo Clinic online, to be on the safe side, there should be no screen time allowed for children two and under, one hour per day for children 2-12 years old, and two hours a days for teen and adults.

Too much screen use can affect:

  • Cognitive and language development
  • Pre-existing mental health disorders
  • Obesity, less time for activity and play
  • Irregular sleep schedules and shorter duration of sleep
  • Behavioral problems and loss of social skills
  • Loss of resilience, the ability to problem solve or self-soothe

The effects of screen time exposure for young kids is not yet fully known. However, there are serious concerns that too much screen time is detrimental. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Public Health Agency of Canada both recommend parents set limits on screen time. Which is easier said than done.

PARENTS: How do you manage your child’s screen time?

Setting limits and guidelines that are adhered to by the whole family is helpful. Keep in mind it’s easier to set rules when children are young than cutting back when they’re older. You know your children best; you will need to decide how much screen-time to let your child use each day and what’s appropriate for your family.

 Setting limits for older children

  • Create tech-free zones or times, such as during mealtime
  • Set time limits and curfews
  • No exposure to devices or screens one hour before bedtime
    • Children who use phones for audio reading should be managed closely
  • Use apps to control the time a child can use a device
  • Keep screens out of bedrooms
  • Limit your own screen time
  • Eliminate background TV

The Darker Side

Yes, too much screen time is harmful for the developing brain, but there is also another even darker, more frightening side to too much screen time. If you have prepubescent kids who spend time online, two of the most concerning dangers are predators and the deterioration of mental health.

Lurking Predators

After reading our post in July, one of you amazing mamas brought @Ourrescue (Operation Underground Railroad) to our attention… an organization that rescues children from online exploitation. Terrifyingly, one of the most prevalent ways predators engage children is through the internet, specifically through social media.

According to O.U.R. Rescue prepubescent children are at the greatest risk of being depicted in child sexual abuse material. A study done by Thorn.org shows one in four victims of sextortion are 13 and under. In North America alone, child trafficking has been reported in every American state, including across Canada. Mobile devices and apps are used by predators to target, recruit, and coerce children to engage in sexual activity, which can then be broadcast to online devices across the world.

“Grooming”

According to O.U.R. Rescue, predators begin the process by “grooming” a victim. They start by establishing contact. Kids and teens often have internet access so there are thousands of communication options for predators, especially if parents are unaware of the dangers.

For example, an older adult in his 40s, with a false photo attached to his fake account, can pose as a teenaged boy or girl and contact a target on social media. As they begin chatting, overtime, the man can convince his victim to send him a nude photo. He then threatens to post the content if the victim doesn’t send more content. Too scared or embarrassed to tell parents or police, the child often obliges. Victims as young as six years old can be groomed in a way where they are taken advantage of.

As soon as kids are allowed to use devices, they should be made aware of the dangers and given the age-appropriate tools and information on how to avoid dangerous situations online.

According to Michelle Busch-Upwall, the Utah ICAC Task Force Education Specialist working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, here are a few ways to help keep your children safe:

  1. Review the O.U.R. Rescue Internet Safety Guide
  2. Monitor social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat, Tik Tok, and more
  3. Self-educate on “grooming” and inform your kids about how predators
    1. target victim’s vulnerabilities to garner trust
    2. validate self-conscious tweens and teens with constant compliments
    3. may give gifts (like plane or train tickets)
    4. will eventually bring up sexual content
    5. will hide their identity (ex: an older guy pretends to be a teenage boy or girl)

Parental Communication is Key to Build Trust and Educate

Experts say it’s okay for teens to be a part of social media, as long as they understand appropriate behaviour. Parents need to explain what’s allowed and what’s not, such as sexting, cyberbullying, and sharing personal information online.

No matter how smart or mature you feel your child is, it’s important to teach them all about online boundaries. Strangers online are just that, strangers. Create pop up passwords, install online safety protections, and stress and restress the importance of not posting personal information. Or speaking to strangers online.

Some basic guidelines on protecting your children online:

  • Preview programs, games, and apps before allowing your child to use them
  • Use parental controls to block/filter inappropriate internet content
  • Keep your child close during screen time to supervise
  • Use online safety guides to educate yourself
  • Avoid fast-paced programming and violent media
  • Eliminate advertising—young kids can’t differentiate between ads and facts

For your children to be on-board with your safety guidelines, you have to ensure they feel safe about coming to you if they are feeling vulnerable. Reassure them that they can talk to you about embarrassing situations without fearing punishment. Your child is bound to make mistakes online and it’s important they are not shamed. Help him or her learn from mistakes instead.

Set an example with limited screen use during family time.

Snapchat and TikTok

You need to be aware of all apps, but parents should watch out for these two, specifically.

Snapchat

This messaging app has been referred to as the Wild, Wild West. Messages, or “snaps”, are only available for viewing for a short amount of time. Once the snap has been opened and viewed, it disappears. This makes it nearly impossible for parents to see what their child is doing within the app.

“Sexting”

(Sending sexually explicit messages and pictures) can be a problem on this platform, as well as bullying. Because there is no paper trail, many users send hateful or explicit messages knowing it’s difficult for parents to intervene. Because it’s a challenging platform to moderate, it is easy for an underaged child to connect with older individuals, making it an ideal platform for predators.

Another potentially harmful app is TikTok – a popular app that lets you watch, create, and share videos often to top music hits from your phone. Safety issues have been a concern for this platform, specifically with reports of online predators using the app to target younger users. It also has a reputation for being a place where teen girls can receive messages from older men.

Predators on Video Games  

Research shows that 97% of teenage boys and 83% of teenage girls in the U.S. play video games. Adult sexual predators are using gaming culture to groom young children into abusive online relationships. According to the New York Times, video games are a hunting ground for predators. Much like on social media, predator gamers pose as a child or teen, use built-in game features to start conversations with unassuming, underaged players. Predators often desensitize victims to certain types of explicit imagery or language, eventually making enough of an inappropriate connection to make abusive demands.

Department of Homeland Security special agent, Matt Wright explains this tactic to the NY Times, “The first threat is ‘if you don’t do it, I’m going to post on social media, and by the way, I’ve got a list of your family members and I’m going to send it all to them’. If the victim doesn’t comply, the predator will say, ‘I know where you live. I’m going to come kill your family.’ Predators gather personal information on the child and might even demand photos of his or her siblings. In fact, an FBI study found that over a quarter of such cases resulted in attempted or successful suicide.

Not All Screen Time is Bad

Anderson pointed out that there can be positive effects of screen time, including increasing social connection, particularly in kids in marginalized groups, where finding online communities where they can be accepted and supported can be immensely positive. For teenagers and adults, small doses of screen time can be a positive way of relaxing, reducing stress and connecting socially to friends and family members.

Digital Literacy

At some point your child will be exposed to content that you haven’t approved. Encourage your child to think critically and carefully about what they see on their screens. Give them power and confidence through education and your trust so they have the ability, strength, and maturity to say no to inappropriate overtures. Teach them how to recognize when boundaries are being crossed. Chances are they are being exposed to mature content that you might not know about.

You can’t be watching all the time as parents, but by raising your own awareness, you are raising that of your child, and in turn, strengthening your family’s level of protection. Take your first steps towards internet safety now, the perils of putting if off are more serious than you may think.

 

Online Safety Resources

Getting ready for Halloween this year? Read our blog on how to stay safe here.