Summer is here again, and for older children and teens that often means more media use: more Web surfing, more video game playing, more music and more TV. For kids who are old enough to be home alone but not yet working, summer is often an opportunity to plunge into leisure activities that are more moderately indulged in during the school year. As well, the lack of structure can make it very easy to fall into bad media use habits, and young people may wind up spending entire days in front of various screens (sometimes more than one at a time.)
How serious an issue is screen time? A study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found that roughly ten percent of Ontario youth spend at least seven hours per day in front of a computer, TV or game console. According to a 2006 World Health Organization study cited here, Canadian youth engaged in an average of six hours of screen time per day (this rose to seven and a half hours per day on weekends; summer, of course, is essentially a two-month weekend.)
The media activity that probably raises parents’ concern the most is video games. The good news is that your child may be better off playing video games than watching TV: unlike TV viewing, for instance, playing video games is not associated with high blood pressure. As well, a recent study has shown that youth who play certain types of video games – in particular, sports-themed games – are likely to play physical sports as well. Some video game systems, most notably the Nintendo Wii, add a physical dimension to the gameplay itself by requiring the player to move her feet or swing a controller. (Most of Nintendo’s competitors are bringing similar systems to the market.)
That being said, most of the games popular among older children and teens are on systems with standard hands-only controllers (or on computers, such as World of Warcraft,) and there’s no question that long stretches of sedentary game playing are unhealthy. In fact, the negative effects go beyond the game replacing more active pursuits: research has shown that long stretches of being sedentary can cause a variety of health problems even when offset with exercise.
More worrying than the physical effects of excessive game playing are the psychological effects. There has been a lot of talk in the last few years about Internet and video game addiction, but it’s not yet clear if overuse of either genuinely has the characteristics of an addiction. What is clear is that heavy media use can have a variety of negative effects, both on a person’s physical and mental health. Moreover, it may be harder during the summer to notice or recognize the signs of problem media use because of the absence of a normal routine. Generally, video game playing (or Internet use, or nearly any other activity) can be considered problematic when it starts interfering with someone’s normal life, but in summer it can be difficult to define what normal life is – just as someone might spend every waking hour of July and August practicing jump shots or skateboard tricks without it being considered a warning sign, so too might it not be that unusual for someone to devote all their time to mastering a video game or “levelling up” their character in an RPG. Some signs of problem use, though, are still meaningful. For instance, is your child becoming isolated from friends? Are his sleep habits or general health being affected? Does he become depressed and argumentative when unable to play the game? Keep in mind that games, like other hobbies, are supposed to be fun; if a game seems to be making your child unhappy (aside from the occasional frustration over a lost duel or blocked progress) there may well be something wrong.
Even if your child is a social butterfly who’s hardly ever home, though, doesn’t mean that media use isn’t a problem. That’s because for most teens and tweens there is no separation between their online and offline social lives, with physical attendance at dates, parties and get-togethers flowing seamlessly into the online discussion and dissection of them. Checking status updates, tweaking profiles and commenting on photos can be as obsessive as video game playing, with the added problem that it often goes on around the clock. Rather than being isolated from their friends, in this case youth feel like “microcelebrities” – with everyone in their circle messaging and commenting on everyone else, they may be reluctant to ever turn off the computer or phone.
In either case, parents can use the same strategies to help their kids moderate their media use in summer (and year-round.) The most important of these is simply to set household rules regarding screen time and media use. While parents (and youth) may be sceptical, there is strong evidence that the existence of rules on media use has a positive effect on behaviour. A recent study showed that having consistent rules makes kids less prone to excessive screen time, a finding which echoes MNet’s research showing the positive effects of household rules on online behaviour. You can also set rules by controlling the physical environment in your home: keeping TVs and Internet-capable computers in public spaces and, if necessary, imposing a “cell phone curfew” after which phones and Web-capable devices need to be handed over to you. More broadly, it’s important to talk to your kids about your expectations and concerns relating to their media use, and to listen to them when they talk about their media experiences. Finally, it’s important to model good media use as well – if your iPhone is on the dining room table every night, the message that sends is going to be louder than anything you can say.