Screen Time, Childhood, and Our Future

By Lauren Hall
March 18, 2024

As my oldest child approaches his fifth birthday, I find myself reflecting on the challenges of raising kids in today’s world. From the moment he was born, I’ve been mindful of how much time he spends in front of screens. It’s not easy in a world where screens are everywhere – TVs at grandma’s, FaceTime calls, and tempting shows that say they’re educational for young kids. But as they grow, so does their exposure and draw to screen time.

Sometimes, I notice that too much screen time leaves him feeling frazzled and hard to soothe. It’s not just my child – studies show that too much screen time can have long-term effects on kids. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently wrote about this in The Atlantic, highlighting how excessive screen time is linked to mental health issues, substance abuse, loneliness, and poor school performance. These problems can stick with kids as they grow up, affecting their careers, families, and society as a whole.

“As the oldest members of Gen Z reach their late 20s, their troubles are carrying over into adulthood,” says Haidt. “And if a generation is doing poorly––if it is more anxious and depressed and is starting families, careers, and important companies at a substantially lower rate than previous generations––then the sociological and economic consequences will be profound for the entire society.”

So, what’s changed in recent years? Smartphones. They’re not the sole culprit, but they’ve played a big role. Alongside smartphones, constant news updates and social media have reshaped childhood. Parents today feel more pressure to keep their kids safe, which often means more screen time indoors. It’s a shift from the days when kids roamed freely outside.

Surveys show that many parents turn to screens because they’re convenient and seem safer than letting kids play unsupervised. But this shift has happened fast, and we’re only just starting to understand its impact. As Haidt puts it, we’ve traded real-world risks for virtual ones that might be even more harmful.

So, what can we do to turn things around with screen time? Haidt offers some suggestions:

  • Limit personal devices: Hold off on buying smartphones and other personal gadgets for kids, especially before puberty.
  • Delay social media: Wait until kids are 16 before letting them dive into social media, where the pressure to perform can take a toll on their mental health.
  • Enforce phone-free zones: Schools should crack down on phone use during class, creating a better environment for learning.
  • Foster independence: Encourage kids to take on responsibilities and make decisions on their own, building confidence and preparing them for adulthood.

While screens themselves aren’t evil, they can lead to problems when overused. It’s time for us to recognize the risks and take steps to protect our kids’ futures.

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