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RHR: Managing Screen Time for Kids


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Technology has grown to play an increasingly important role in our daily lives, so it’s absolutely essential that we consider the possible harmful effects of screen time on both adults and children. There is a growing concern for children whose developing brains and social skills can be affected by [the] overuse of technology, and yet it’s become apparent that tech will remain ingrained in our lives for the foreseeable future. In this podcast, I cover some of the ways that my family uses and restricts technology in our daily lives, some examples of how it can be harmful and what we can do about it, as well as some suggestions for each family to adopt a plan for managing their screen time in [a] way that works best for them. 

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Why we’re talking about this topic
  • Striking a balance between putting too many restrictions on our kids’ screen time and not giving them enough restrictions 
  • Choosing the best software for your family to manage your children’s technology use
  • The importance of being aware of the potential negative impacts of technology use
  • Alternative technology to give your children besides the popular smartphone or tablet
  • Figuring out how much screen time is the right amount for your child
  • When to have a sit-down discussion with your child to talk about responsible technology use and screen time balance

Show notes:

RHR: Managing Screen Time for Kids


Chris Kresser: Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m going to do a solo show on a topic that we’ve received quite a few questions about over the past six or seven months. I’ve spoken over the years and more recently about the harmful impacts of excess screen time for both kids and adults. And I’ve talked a fair amount about the steps that we as adults can take to reduce screen time. But a few listeners have written in to ask for ideas on how to limit screen use in kids, given how ubiquitous these technologies have become in their lives. And this has been even more true during the pandemic when many kids have been isolated and kept at home and screens have been their primary interfaces with their teachers, friends, and lives in general.

I’m going to share some ideas and tools that we’ve found to be helpful in our family. And there are a couple of caveats here. The first is that this is definitely a work in progress. It’s been a struggle for us. We found some things that have been effective [and] some things that have not been effective. And I think it’s worth pointing out that we are products of our environment, and we’re shaped by our environment, and we’re influenced and affected by our environment. And we can’t make isolated changes in that environment and expect those changes to not be impacted by the circumstances or conditions of that environment. That’s a rather long-winded way of saying that if we find ourselves in a culture where these technologies are dominant and play an increasingly significant role in social interactions between children and leisure activities and the way that kids learn, and just about everything else, it’s going to be difficult for us to address that on an individual level. These are systemic problems, and, certainly, there are steps that we can take individually and as families to mitigate the impact of those technologies. But at the end of the day, we’re still subject to the influence of the environment that we live in. And I think that’s one of the most difficult aspects of this for parents.

It’s something I talked with Cal Newport a little bit on the show that I did with him on this broader topic of technology in our lives. He also makes [the] point that, in his experience, purely individual steps that are taken to reduce screen time for adults, which is what he mostly talks about, are often not that effective because they ignore the importance of this context that we’re discussing here. So that’s the first caveat. The second caveat in what I’m going to share with you is that we as a family are pretty restrictive when it comes to this stuff. A lot of what we do might seem draconian or unrealistic to you, depending on your particular situation. If there’s a spectrum where on one end is no boundaries at all, and just giving kids 100 percent control over their own use of technology, and then on the other end of the spectrum is living in a cave, in a remote area where there’s absolutely no exposure to technologies for kids, I’d say we’re certainly not in the cave. But we’re probably closer to that end of the spectrum than we are to the other end of the spectrum where there’s no limitation or boundaries at all.

And I’m not saying that our way is the only way, of course, or even the right way. Every family has to find what works for them, given their specific circumstances, and there will be a lot of variables that determine that. One might be just each particular child’s relationship with technology and how susceptible they are to screen addiction or excess screen use interfering with other activities. The truth is that’s not the same for every kid. I think all kids are susceptible to some extent, just like all adults are susceptible, because of our basic hardwired biological human programming. But within that susceptibility, there is definitely a range. There are kids who are very susceptible to this and, sadly, those kids can become the ones [who] deal with actual addiction and may end up in rehab for video game addiction or screen addiction of some sort. And it can really destroy their lives and their family’s lives.

Striking a Balance Between Too Many Restrictions and Not Enough

On the other end of the spectrum, you have kids [who] are mildly susceptible in the way that all human beings are susceptible, but it doesn’t really interfere with their lives. It doesn’t get in the way of their normal human relationships; it doesn’t get in the way of their physical activity, spending time outdoors, and all the other stuff that’s important for kids to be doing. So that’s one variable. Another variable will be their social contacts and friends. One of the things that’s hardest for us, and that I hear from so many different families, is limiting access to these technologies, in many cases, limits their participation in the social activities that their friends are engaged in. As an example, I had a discussion several months back with a parent of a 16-year-old girl, and her 16-year-old girl was devastated because she felt like she had lost her best friend because her best friend had joined Instagram and was interacting a lot with other friends on Instagram. And this particular parent of this 16-year-old didn’t want her daughter to be on Instagram and didn’t allow it. So she didn’t have a phone that had Instagram on it. And, over a relatively short period of just a few weeks, this parent felt, or the daughter basically felt like she was shut out from her relationship with her best friend because her friend wanted her to be on Instagram, liking her posts, and interacting with her like other friends were.

So this is a real concern and [has] a real impact on kids’ lives. And I think we need to have a lot of compassion and understanding for the position that they’re in. Because that’s a really difficult circumstance to be in if you feel like your best friend is using these technologies and wanting to interact with them, and you’re not able to as a 16-year-old, that’s really difficult. All human beings want to be included. That’s another basic human trait. And as we all know, since we’ve all been teenagers ourselves, that impulse is especially strong and important during the teenage years. And I would say less in even tween years, as well. So, being excluded from a context where most of your friends are participating and interacting is no small thing. And it’s definitely something that we need to consider as we think about what the best response is as parents.

That’s a framework for how I think about it. And again, this is for me, for us, for many of our friends, and my patients and people [who] I talked to about this; it’s a moving target. It’s something that needs to be reevaluated almost constantly. I [don’t] think it should be the kind of thing where you come up with a policy and just implement it and forget about it. It’s much more dynamic than that, and the conditions are often changing. So I’m going to give you some ideas and tips and share some of the technologies, ironically, that we use to limit technology access. And the final caveat will be this is a living, breathing set of principles and guidelines, and I will definitely revisit it in the future as things continue to evolve for us.

The first principle is fairly simple, but I’m surprised by how often it seems to be ignored, which is for parents to be in control of your kids’ access to screens and technology. I believe that unrestricted, unlimited screen access, especially when that screen is connected to the internet, and there are no boundaries on what apps can be installed, is a recipe for disaster. I think we have plenty of research to support this. We know that that’s even true for adults. Many of us struggle to limit our own use of these technologies, and even those of us who understand what the downsides are still struggle. And then when you give kids and teenagers that kind of unrestricted access, number one, they may first not have the same ideas about the harms that can come from those technologies. So they are not necessarily even starting with the assumption that they should limit them. And number two, they have the incredible social pull that I just mentioned to be using them. And number three, their willpower and other resource[s], internal resources for limiting their access, controlling their own behavior are often far less developed than those kinds of resources can be in adults.

For all those reasons, I think that giving kids unrestricted access is a huge mistake, and it’s really setting them up and setting you up for failure and a lot of problems down the line. So the first principle is to be in control of access, and there are different ways to do this. One, of course, is to not give your kids their own devices in the first place, like phones or tablets, and only allow them to use yours at certain times and for certain periods that you designate. Now, this has some downsides, of course, especially as kids get older. You have to be very much involved and in control, and there can be a lot of power struggles around that. You also may not want your kids [on] your devices and potentially opening [and] reading your emails or text messages or things like that. So I think that this particular strategy can work for very young kids. [However], I would also argue that very young kids shouldn’t really have much screen access at all, particularly unsupervised screen access. But when kids get older, in many cases, it’s going to make more sense for them to have their own device, whatever that might be. But to use, again, here’s the irony, technology, particularly software, to control and limit their access to those devices.

Software to Control Device Access

Let me give a specific example in our family. Our daughter is 10 [years old] at the time of this recording, 10 and a half; she doesn’t have her own phone yet, although she would very much like to have one. And she likely won’t have her own phone until she’s 15 or 16. Again, this puts us in the absolute minority. Some would call us Neo-Luddites, but it’s a choice we’ve made based on consideration of many of the variables that I mentioned earlier in the recording. She does have her own iPad, and we use an app called OurPact that allows us to set limits on the overall amount of time that she can spend on the device. And also what apps can be used, whether she can download new apps herself; she cannot. Whether she can do in-app purchases, she cannot. And several other variables. So it’s a pretty powerful app. It’s not perfect; I have some quibbles with it. But I’ve looked at and used virtually all the similar apps, and I keep coming back to using OurPact for this purpose. So you can set it up. For example, let’s say you want to give your kids a half-hour [or] an hour of screen access a day or two hours of screen access a day. You can do that. You could also have different limits on the weekends versus during the week. You can also block out certain hours. So let’s say you don’t want them accessing the iPad in the morning when they’re getting ready for school, and maybe you want to set blackout hours at night, so like after 8:00 p.m., there’s no access until the following day after school at 3:00 p.m., or whatever you’re going to do.

It’s very easy to do that with OurPact. And then from there, you can configure what apps they have access to. And that can even be done for specific times a day. So you could decide, for example, to have only certain apps available in the morning, or on the weekend, or after school or what have you. So, [it’s a] pretty specific set of controls. There [are] also now built-in controls in iOS and probably Android. I’m not an Android user, so I don’t know much about it. But I assume at this point that they have a similar function. In iOS, this is called Screen Time. And you can use this for yourself to control or limit your own screen time; you can also use it for your kids. And we use both. It’s a little complicated, [and] I’m not even sure I can explain it here. But there are features that are available in Screen Time that are not available in OurPact and vice versa. So we ended up cobbling together a solution where we use both, and it works pretty well. It was a lot of trial and error for us, and there are lots and lots of variables, which is, again, why I can’t really explain it in detail here. But Screen Time, for example, allows us to limit entire groups of apps. And I’ve found that in some cases, the time-limiting factor works a little bit better than it does with OurPact.

One important thing to note is that for either of these apps to work well, the devices need to be connected to the internet because that’s how it calls back to the parent device. So with OurPact, you’ll have it installed on the child’s device, and then you’ll have an app on your device. And you can control all the access settings from your device and from the child’s device; that’s how it calls back to the internet, I think, to enforce the limits. And if it’s not connected to the internet, then there’s no limit, and this is a downside of the app, and I’ve written [to] them about it. But it seems to be a limitation in how it’s programmed. And this can come up, like let’s say you’re on a long drive, and you only want your kid to be able to watch a movie for a couple [of] hours, and then you want them to do something else for the remainder of the drive. Unless that iPad has a cellular connection that allows it to be connected while you’re driving, then that limit will not [be enforced], basically. Your kid will be able to continue using the iPad until you get back to somewhere where there’s an internet connection. So that’s something to be aware of. [A] workaround is getting a cellular connection for that device, and I think Screen Time does a better job of that. It seems like sometimes the limit will still be enforced, even if there’s not an internet connection. But to be honest, I haven’t been able to fully figure that out yet. It seems like sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But between both of these tools, you can have a lot of fine-grained control over what your kids are accessing and for how long.

Awareness of Device Activities with Potential Negative Impact

The second principle is to control your kids’ access to the internet and certain apps. Not all online activities are equal when it comes to their potential negative impact on kids. Streaming music, for example, or taking photos or organizing photos are far different in terms of how they affect kids than using Instagram or TikTok. A lot of the studies we’ve seen and work from people like Jonathan Haidt and even Facebook’s own research has shown that there are uniquely harmful effects of social media like Instagram and TikTok that particularly impact tween and teenage girls because they plug into the strong need for belonging that I mentioned earlier. And kids can start to organize their lives around getting likes for what they post, and if they don’t get likes, it deeply affects their self-esteem. And that is so much worse and so different than taking pictures, listening to music, or even texting. So that’s the first thing to be aware of. We’re not talking about universal restriction to all technologies in the same way. It makes sense to restrict access to those technologies, which present the greatest threat and can cause the greatest harm.

So again, apps like OurPact that I just mentioned and then Screen Time, which is built into iOS, can both provide access to and limit access to certain apps. And I think it’s a really good idea to use these tools for this reason. Along the same lines, OurPact and Screen Time can also block your child from purchasing and downloading new apps from the App Store, which you definitely want to do. Because otherwise, your kids [are] just going to work around this pretty quickly. Most kids are savvy with technology, and if they’re able to get on there and download whatever apps they want and use those apps or do in-app purchases, then whatever efforts you’ve [made] to prevent that from happening will be moot.

Alternatives to Popular Smartphones

Another option for controlling access to the internet and certain apps is to buy something like a Gabb phone or a Gabb watch. This is a company that has created phones and watches that are specifically designed for kids. These devices limit the number of contacts that a kid could have. So, for example, with the Gabb watch, they can only have 10 contacts; they can’t add new contacts. So that is safer. It prevents a lot of stuff from happening that you might not want to happen. There’s also a mode on the Gabb watch where the only thing that the child can do is to call an emergency number that you designate, which could be your own number [or] your partner’s number. And when it’s in that mode, it functions basically as a watch and it’s an emergency device. And you can set hours for usage. So let’s say you don’t want your kid using the watch during the day while they’re at school. You could set it so that they can only have the full use of it from like 3:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. or something every day. And then, the phone has more functionality than the watch. It’s got music; it’s got more contacts. They can send text messages, [and] they can make calls. But they cannot install Instagram and other social media apps on the phone. It’s just not possible to do that with the Gabb phone. So this has become a pretty popular option for a lot of parents.

And the watch is also a popular option for younger kids. Whereas in the case where you don’t necessarily want your child having full access to a phone yet, but you do want them to be able to make calls, which you can do with the Gabb watch to the 10 contacts that are preloaded that the parents can load, and to be able to send simple emoji-based text messages or pre-configured messages. So you have a set of pre-configured messages that you can determine and write and load into the watch. So they could be like “I’m on my way home” or “can you come pick me up” or something like that. And then the kid can just choose from those pre-configured messages. And then the kid can also record a voice memo or voice message that will be sent to you as a text message, but it will show up as an audio recording. So I think that’s a really great starter option.

We are again, at the time of this recording, considering that for our 10-year-old. We’re not ready for a phone, even a Gabb phone for her. But we are considering a watch, and there’s a lot of controls and I think [it] provides some of the benefit[s] of being able to participate in social interaction. Some of her friends already have phones. Certainly, a lot of them have watches or things like that, and she wants to be able to call them or communicate with them. And when I think back on my own childhood and my wife, we both talk about this. By the time we were 10 or 11, we were using our landlines to call friends. And we were able to communicate with them in that way. Most people now don’t have landlines, and that’s really not an option. So if we want our kids to be able to call their friends and communicate with them in that way, then something like a Gabb watch, which permits that but doesn’t allow many of the more harmful aspects of technology for younger kids, like access to social media, that may be a really good compromise for a lot of different parents and kids.

How Much Time Should You Allow Your Kid to Engage with the Screen?

The last principle or question is just simply how much time should you allow your kid to be engaged with the screen? This is a very personal choice. And, of course, it depends on all the variables that we mentioned before. And if you ask 10 experts, psychologists, and people who study this and write about it and talk about it a lot, you’re going to get 10 different answers. So there’s nothing universal here. And again, I think it depends a lot on the kids’ temperament. The research is pretty clear that young kids under the age of two should not really have any screen time at all. So all this Baby Mozart stuff, and sometimes when I go out to a restaurant, and I see a family with a one-year-old, propped up on a high chair with a phone on their little tray in front of them, I cringe because there’s a lot of evidence that suggests that that is not beneficial and is harmful for the neurodevelopment, brain development of kids that age.

As kids start to get older, the range of potential screen time that experts suggest gets broader and broader again, depending on who you listen to. In our case, we really want our daughter to be spending as much time interacting with the real physical world as possible, which means being outside, staying active, [and] playing with friends in person. And then things like reading books, making art, [and] playing music. We feel that these kinds of activities are best for her brain development, for her social development, [and] for her development as a human being. We want her to have an experience of life that is primarily unmediated by technology. We want her to have time for reverie and contemplation. We want her to feel bored because as I’ve just talked about before and written about before, boredom is actually a precondition for creativity and innovation. Being able to tolerate those moments where you don’t know what to do, you’re not engaged in a particular activity, and you start to feel that sensation that we refer to as boredom, some of the richest and most unpredictable experiences can come out of that.

And one of the things that concerns me most about these technologies that we have access to, for adults and kids, is that if we want to, we can completely avoid that experience. Those experiences of boredom, those quiet moments where we might just gaze out the window, and we go into that default mode network where we’re unconsciously reviewing our lives and our experiences, and that’s generating new ideas and new perspectives. I think that kind of time is absolutely essential to being human, and I’m concerned that there are entire generations now that are being raised with these technologies, which can essentially completely obliterate that time. So let’s say you’re in line at the store, and you might be in a situation where you’d have those kinds of moments, but you can just whip out your phone and see what’s new. Similarly, if you’re riding in a car, like many of us did when we were kids just looking out the window, at this point, so many kids are just watching a video or on their phone in the car. Really anytime there’s any feeling of discomfort or just space at all in one’s life, we can look at our phone. And I think that the harms of this are not even fully understood yet and won’t be for some time. But I’m pretty alarmed by it. And I see it in both adults and kids.

I was just at a restaurant the other day, and there was a family, and the entire family was on their phones for the entire time. And there were moments where someone would put their phone down and then sort of look around, see that other people were on their phones, and pick it up again. There were moments where you could see someone going through [an] internal, or at least I was projecting that they were going through an internal process where they’re like, “Okay, I probably shouldn’t be using my phone as much.” So they put the phone down. But then, a couple [of] moments pass, some discomfort arises, [and] they pick up the phone again. And I don’t mean to judge or to call this particular family out because we all struggle with this, including me. But it’s an indicator for me of where we’re at in the world that we’re living in. And I think that if we were, let’s say, to transport ourselves from 30 or 40 years ago, prior to the advent of these technologies, and travel into the future, and then just be a passive observer standing in that restaurant looking at what’s happening, we would have been horrified and shocked. It would have been like a bad sci-fi movie, where we see that that’s the nature of human interaction now, and even just [our] relationship with ourselves is completely interfered with by these technologies.

And I feel like we’ve been the proverbial frogs in the boiling water, where these changes have taken place quickly but not overnight. I don’t think we’re even fully aware of how dramatically they have interfered with our lives. And if you think of that thought experiment where you go from 30 or 40 years ago, those of us who were old enough to remember what life was like before these technologies, and you fast forward quickly, it would be a shocking change. So we definitely fall on the end of the spectrum of limiting access to these technologies and wanting our daughter to have significant periods of time where she’s not interacting with them at all. And that’s true on a day-to-day basis. But it’s also true on a more extended timeframe. I’ve talked about this a lot before, but we do digital, complete screen-free times as a family. We’ve been worse on this in the pandemic, but prior to that, Sundays were sacred screen-free days for everybody. And then we would do more extended periods; in the summer, we’ll often do a multi-day rafting trip or a backcountry trip where we’re just in nature, and we’re not interacting with phones or screens at all.

And I can tell you that even when our daughter was younger than she is now, at the end of those trips, she would express that she didn’t want to leave those environments. So even at a young age, [she] was able to experience how different life feels when you’re in that kind of vital essential relationship to the physical world, to nature, to other people. And she would say things like, “Poppa, I don’t want to leave the river,” which is a pretty powerful expression of our own innate knowledge of what’s good for us. And I think it’s really important to carve out screen-free times on a daily basis, more extended periods on a weekly or monthly basis, and then, longer chunks of time maybe on an annual or semiannual basis, where your kids and you are not experiencing life mediated by a screen because it has become such a dominant experience for most of us.

All right, so those are my current thoughts. I hope this has been helpful. And again, I want to emphasize how this is a living breathing process. We’ve changed and continue to change our approach. For example, right now, we’re not really doing much screen time at all on a daily basis for our daughter. We have a family movie night on Saturday nights, and she’s got maybe a half-hour, an hour on one or two other days during the week, depending on the week. But we’ve had other times where she had an hour a day, and could watch a movie or do some other stuff. But we’re just constantly monitoring it, seeing how it’s working for her, for our family and then making changes accordingly. So I would definitely invite you to do the same; it does require more thought process, more discussion. It becomes a larger topic of conversation. But I think it’s really important to do that.

When to Discuss Responsible Use of Tech with Your Kids

The second thing about that that I would suggest is including your child, once they’re old enough, in those conversations. We’ve talked a lot with our daughter about the impacts of these technologies. She’s even watched The Social Dilemma; she was a bit young for it when she saw it, but we really wanted her to see it. I’ve talked to her about my work and studies about technology and screen addiction. She’s very well aware of all of that stuff. And that doesn’t mean that she still doesn’t want to use these technologies. Of course, that’s not going to change her desires. All that stuff is operating on an intellectual level; she understands it on an intellectual level, but her desires and impulses for these technologies are coming from a lower part of the brain and part of very deep human desires to interact with other people socially and be part of something, etc. So don’t expect to explain these things to your kids and then have them all of a sudden change their behavior. That doesn’t work for most adults, so we can’t expect it to work for kids.

Nevertheless, I think it is important to include them in the conversation. And I think you’ll find that when you do that, you’ll hear your kids in various contexts mentioning, maybe to other people or even to you, things that you’ve shared with them in the past, and that’s an indicator that they’re taking it in in some form or capacity. All right. That’s it for today, everyone. Thanks for listening. Please keep sending in your questions to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion, and we’ll talk to you next time.

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