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Device dilemma: Kids are spending more time online, but is that a bad thing?

A child holds an Apple iPhone 6S at an Apple store in Chicago in 2015. In 2019, World Health Organization Wednesday issued its first-ever guidance for how much screen time children under 5 should get: not very much.  (Kiichiro Sato)
A child holds an Apple iPhone 6S at an Apple store in Chicago in 2015. In 2019, World Health Organization Wednesday issued its first-ever guidance for how much screen time children under 5 should get: not very much. (Kiichiro Sato)

Kids are getting more screen time than ever, which may give parents pause as they consider Christmas gifts for their children.

For many kids, the latest smart phone is at the top of the gift list. But for many parents, there’s more angst than ever about the effects of the pandemic.

The use of tablets and phones has increased since early 2000, said Deanna Trella, an education professor at Eastern Washington.

“Since the vast majority of students have been in remote learning for much of that time, that’s not necessarily worse or better,” Trella said.

According to a study published in October by the Journal of American Medicine/Pediatrics, average screen time for some children has doubled during the pandemic, from 3.8 to 7.7 hours a day. And that doesn’t count time spent in the

However the operative word here is “average,” a word that does little to help worried parents. Most kids aren’t average, and even those who are may not remain that way.

For screen time that means a certain app might unlock their curiosity in good ways and bad.

Trella acknowledged that “raw numbers have increased a lot,” but says the problem is more nuanced – and may not be a problem at all for many kids.

Like it or not, that puts the burden on parents to dig a little deeper, to better understand how their children handle phones, tablets and the opportunities and challenges they present.

“Problem behavior is what we look for, and there are different uses around education,” said Trella, who is uniquely qualified on the issue of kids and their electronic devices; her areas of expertise include the pandemic’s effects on youth and family dynamics.

“Apps or other programs that have some educational qualities versus problematic ones: social media that can become addictive, where kids don’t necessarily feel good after using it.”

Others have raised the alarm bell over the influence of social media on children, including elementary school students.

According to a poll published in October by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan, about half of parents of children ages 10 to 12 reported their child used social media apps in the first six months of this year.

Perhaps more worrisome: almost one-third of kids ages 7 to 9 are using social media apps.

“There continues to be debate over how soon is too soon when it comes to using social apps and how parents should oversee it,” said Sarah Clark, a research scientist in pediatrics at the University of Michigan.

Most parents are stepping up.

When deciding which apps were appropriate for their child, more than 60% of parents considered whether the apps had parent controls, were rated appropriate for their child’s age group or were needed for their child’s schooling.

Between 51% to 66% of parents used parental blocks on certain sites, parent approval for new contacts, privacy settings, daily time limits and a passcode for certain content.

Many parents also had concerns about their child’s abilities to safely navigate social media apps. Some worried their child might share private information without realizing it, encounter sexual predators, see mature images or videos, or not be able to discern what information was true or false.

For those reasons and others, they are right to be concerned, Trella said.

“We’ve seen the algorithms,” Trella said. “Their intentions is to get you to stay engaged, and play upon your interests: one more Tik Tok video … next thing, you feel about yourself that you haven’t done your homework and feel that you’re lazy.”

A child’s total screen time might be greater than parents realized. Experts encourage them to start monitoring it, explain screen time rules and enforce them.

Parameters should be set at the moment of purchase and installation of apps, other experts say.

Some experts advocate a tiered approach, based on the child’s age, maturity. At the low end, the phone would hold only the factory preset apps, with no internet browsing allowed.

If the child appears ready, she could be allowed internet with accountability software allowed, and eventually video games and select social media.

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