The Amount Of Time Kids Spend Online Each Year Will Shock You

Digital security company Aura analyzed data from 31,000 devices and found that kids spend, on average, an aggregate of three months of the year online.

We’ve all seen the headlines about today’s teen mental health crisis: Kids are struggling.

The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report, which analyzed data collected from 2011-2021, found a steady increase over that time in the number of teens who “experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness,” as well as in the number of kids who considered, made a plan for or attempted suicide. In 2021, the first survey done after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 22% of kids considered suicide, and 10% made an attempt. The numbers for queer youth were even higher.

These numbers are devastating, and they only scratch the surface of the pain that these kids and their families experience.

Hari Ravichandran is the founder and CEO of Aura, a digital security company. He is also the father of four children, one of whom struggled with depression, self-harming behaviors and an eating disorder, Ravichandran told HuffPost.

At the age of 14, “she had to go to a community-based therapy center for a couple of weeks, and her phone was sort of left behind. So we went through it and it was fairly shocking to me,” Ravichandran said. It was clear that the things his child was looking at online were, if not directly causing some of her struggles, at least making them worse.

These days, he sets strict limits on the amount of time his two teenage children spend online and provides them what he calls “guardrails” by setting parental controls. It wasn’t hard to convince the younger children of the need to change the rules regarding screen time after watching their sister struggle, Ravichandran said.

While it’s unclear what the relationship is between kids’ mental health and their screen time — does time online lead to mental health issues, or do kids with mental health issues gravitate to online spaces? — the combination can be dangerous.

Dr. Jason Nagata, who cares for young people with eating disorders at the University of California, San Francisco Children’s Hospital, told HuffPost, “During the pandemic, several of our adolescents with eating disorders had noted that while stuck at home, they spent countless hours browsing social media sites where they became lost in disordered eating content related to weight loss or muscle building.”

He noted that hospitalizations for eating disorders doubled at his facility during this time.

“Several of our patients while hospitalized would use social media to find and share tips on how to continue disordered eating behaviors in the hospital despite the severe medical complications of their eating disorder,” he said.

These patients inspired Nagata to conduct research about adolescents’ screen time, and stories like theirs have led many parents to limit how many hours their kids spend on screens and the content they can access.

Why it’s so hard for kids to get off their screens

For parents who were kids in the 80s and 90s, there was really only one kind of screen at home: the TV. And many of us spent plenty of hours in its glow — particularly during summer vacation.

But today’s kids are spending an alarming amount of time online, to the potential detriment of their sleep, physical activity level and mental health. Aura analyzed data from 31,000 devices that had the parental controls they sell activated and found that kids spend, on average, an aggregate of three months of the year online.

Tim Estes, CEO of Angel AI, which is developing an AI-powered search engine designed for kids, has worked in the tech industry for many years and is wary of the way that today’s apps elicit addictive behaviors in children. (He also keeps screens to a minimum for his own kids, ages 8 and 5.)

What makes today’s devices different from the TV, Estes told HuffPost, is “interactivity.”

“It’s a lot more stimulation,” he said, “and for developing brains, that has a lot of addictiveness to it, literally driving a kind of dopamine feedback loop that makes kids just start to feel that if they don’t get enough of it that something’s wrong — much like a narcotic.”

martin-dm via Getty Images

Digital security company Aura analyzed data from 31,000 devices and found that kids spend, on average, an aggregate of three months of the year online.

Apps and websites were not, of course, designed by early childhood educators to work for children. The reason they can be so damaging to children is that they are designed to maximize anyone’s time online, thereby maximizing the company’s profit.

“That approach became pioneered because of the advertising business model that powered most of these sites,” Estes said.

“Their objective function, essentially, is to get you to spend more time on it,” he continued, with algorithms, basing their calculations off your every move, “deciding what’s going to keep you stuck there.”

For adults, the time suck of scrolling means that many of us are less productive than we could be. For kids, however, screen addiction becomes “an unhealthy attachment that isolates and then leads to a whole slew of mental health issues if it’s left unchecked.”

Have confidence in your role setting boundaries for your child

While it often feels like kids want us to grant them free rein to do as they please (unlimited screen time, an endless supply of candy and a permanently delayed bedtime), at the end of the day, it isn’t what they need and it won’t make them feel good. They look to us as their protectors, and when we set boundaries and stick to them, it helps kids feel safe.

When it comes to screen time, the way we enforce these boundaries is “an extension of how we’ve always behaved with our kids,” Becky Kennedy, aka Dr. Becky, told an audience at a Digital Parenting Summit hosted by Aura on June 4 in New York City. Kennedy, a clinical psychologist and mother of three, explained that just as we set clear expectations with our kids when it comes to other matters of their health and safety — crossing the street, going to bed, teeth brushing — we need to do the same thing in the digital world in order to keep them safe online.

The tricky part is figuring out what boundaries to establish to keep a specific child safe at a specific moment. Parents didn’t grow up in this same digital landscape, and so we can’t look back to our own childhoods for models of how to enforce safe online behavior. And the constant development of new technology means that we also have to be quick on our feet, ready to pivot at a moment’s notice to meet a new challenge.

It takes both fortitude and flexibility to commit to upholding limits around screen time. It is not a decision that we make only once, but rather a commitment to setting boundaries that we need to return to every day with constant vigilance. Kennedy likened a parent’s job here to that of an airplane pilot, who understands that their task is not to make the passengers happy but to keep them safe and who would never leave decision-making to the passengers.

Yet while a pilot can expect a thank you, or at least a friendly nod, from disembarking passengers, parents can’t expect any positive reinforcement from their kids.

Our kids will not say, ’Thank so you much. … I feel so safe and therefore feel loved,’” Kennedy said with a laugh during her talk. “We can’t look to our kids to validate our parenting decisions. That’s not their job.”

When we feel hesitant and want confirmation that we’re making sound decisions, we have to look to experts or other parents who are navigating this new landscape with us.

Understand the difference between a boundary and a request

If the first time you’re setting boundaries with your child is when you give them a cellphone, you’re going to be up against a steep learning curve. Instead, take advantage of those prephone years and practice setting boundaries to keep kids safe. Your kids will likely have negative reactions when you enforce these boundaries, but over time they will learn to tolerate them, and you will learn to tolerate their being upset.

Kennedy explained that often parents misunderstand the difference between a boundary and a request. If we say, for example, “I need you to turn off the iPad in five minutes,” that’s a request. A boundary, on the other hand, tells our child what we’re going to do, instead of asking them to do something, she told HuffPost. “I’m going to take the iPad and put it away in five minutes” achieves the same goal but makes it clear that the decision-making power rests with the parent.

The act of setting boundaries is basically the same as when we were kids and our parents refused us the things that we wanted, like eating a tub of frosting for dinner. But in today’s digital world, the consequence of not setting a boundary “is higher and higher in terms of our kids’ mental health,” Kennedy said.

Don’t be afraid to change course as necessary

Of course, sometimes we set boundaries around screens and then, for one reason or another — illness, lack of child care, a global pandemic — we let them slide.

Kennedy urges parents not to despair when this happens. You’re still the pilot, and you can get the plane back on course. First, Kennedy told HuffPost, you should give yourself credit for diagnosing the problem.

“I think it’s amazing when parents say, ‘Wait, something going on in my house isn’t quite working anymore. And I want to make a shift,’” Kennedy said.

Instead of rushing to reimpose limits, however, Kennedy recommends taking a moment to really think about what kind of boundary you want to set and why it’s important to you. Then when you do talk about it with your child, Kennedy said, “Deliver it to your kid with conviction, not looking for their approval. That feels really bad to kids.”

But you also don’t want to take on an authoritarian tone and lay down the law with a “Because I said so.” Kennedy believes you can both acknowledge your kids’ feelings and uphold the boundary, saying instead something like, “I want to let you know about something that’s going to shift with screen time. And actually, I think it might take a few days to get used to. You might whine, you might complain. I’m totally ready for that. I get it. Here is the way we’re going to do things at the end of the time limit. When you come and ask for more time, I am going to say no, that’s going to be it and I get that it’s going to take a few days to get used to.”

You’ll need to call on those reserves of confidence and conviction yet again, Kennedy warned: “Get ready for a few days of pushback.” Setting time limits on your kids’ devices so that they turn off at a certain hour, or after a certain amount of time, can be helpful in minimizing conflict. This way, “it’s now the software against my kid instead of me against my kid,” Kennedy said, referring to the parental controls that either come with devices or are sold separately.

Kids who are allowed to use screens during meals and in their bedrooms log more screen time overall.

Granger Wootz via Getty Images

Kids who are allowed to use screens during meals and in their bedrooms log more screen time overall.

Another way to encourage kids’ buy-in is to talk about how you, too, are trying to limit your use of technology, and inviting kids to gently remind you when they see you falling short in this regard.

You might say, Kennedy suggested, “If there’s a time we’re having a meal or playing game or we’re in a conversation and I’m distracted by my phone, can you let me know?”

“What you’re setting up there is a little bit of a back and forth, and you’re actually asking your kid to help you live in a way that’s more in line with your values,” Kennedy said.

Think about setting up a “family system,” she said, in which everyone in the home adheres to guidelines such as starting the day screen free, parking their devices in a designated spot when they get home, putting devices away at mealtimes and keeping them out of the bedroom at night to encourage healthy sleep.

What kind of limits are most effective for kids?

Nagata’s research, which included surveys of more than 10,000 kids ages 12-13, found the strongest association with kids’ screen time around mealtimes and bedrooms. Kids who were allowed to use screens during meals and in their bedrooms logged more screen time overall.

Putting time limits on kids’ screen use and monitoring their use were also correlated with less screen time, and less “problematic” use that showed addictive behaviors.

What didn’t work, the researchers found, was tying screen time to kids’ behavior.

“Taking screen time away as a punishment for bad behavior or offering screen time as a reward for good behavior was associated with higher adolescent screen time and higher problematic video game use,” Nagata told HuffPost.

In a previous study, Nagata noted, he and other researchers found that screens negatively impacted adolescents’ sleep.

“Having a TV set or internet-connected device in the bedroom was associated with a 27% higher risk of having trouble falling or staying asleep,” he said. “Leaving the phone ringer on was associated with 23% higher risk of having trouble falling or staying asleep compared to turning it off.”

In addition, “One-fifth of adolescents reported that they used their phone or other device after waking up during the night in the past week. This was associated with a 34% higher risk of sleep troubles,” Nagata said.

Based on his research, Nagata recommended that parents “consider screen-free times at bedtime and mealtimes.” He also recommends “keeping screens outside their children’s bedroom and turning off devices and notifications overnight.”

The best thing that parents can do to control their kids’ screen time, however, is to moderate their own.

“One of the biggest predictors of adolescents’ screen use is their parents’ screen use.” Nagata said. “If parents make a family rule to not text at the dinner table, they should follow it.”

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