Responding to Excessive Use

Time spent using devices is one of parents’ top concerns when it comes to their kids’ digital lives – and is the number one source of conflict between parents and children relating to technology use.[1] It’s tempting for parents to act authoritatively and lay down the law on the number of hours their kids can spend on the computer, but in order to effectively address excessive use, there needs to be an active, voluntary commitment on the part of the young person to control their behaviour. Otherwise, kids will just find ways to work around their parents and be left to their own devices once they’re old enough to leave the house.

The following tips are based on recommendations from the Canadian Pediatric Society’s Digital Health Task Force. For more information, consult the reports Screen time and young children: Promoting health and development in a digital world and Digital media: Promoting healthy screen use in school-aged children and adolescents.

Managing screen time – Younger children

 If you’ve ever seen kids’ eyes glaze over during the third hour of a cartoon marathon, or had to take away a game device over pleas to “just let me finish this level,” you have some idea why screen time can be an issue. Here are four important steps taken from the Canadian Pediatric Society’s recommendations for keeping screen time under control and making screen use a valuable part of younger kids’ lives.

Minimize screen use:

  • Try to expose babies and toddlers to as little screen time as possible, whether it’s TV and videos or interactive media like educational apps. The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends no screen time for children under two and no more than an hour per day for children ages two to five. If you have older children as well, explain to them why they need to limit screen time around their younger siblings.
  • Help kids understand from early on that using screens is a health issue, like eating well or brushing your teeth. Just like kids can understand that some foods are better than others and that too much of anything can be bad for you, they can learn to make good choices about screens.

Use screens mindfully, as an activity you choose, rather than as something on in the background or that you turn on as a habit:

  • A big step in controlling your media time is becoming mindful of it. Turning on a TV, computer or mobile device should be something you do at particular times, for particular reasons. When you’re not using them, they should be turned all the way off (not just on “sleep”) and put away, if possible. Make sure kids don’t get in the habit of turning devices on as soon as they sit down and don’t have screens on as “background noise.”
  • Get creative! It’s not unusual for kids to obsess over characters and settings in their favourite shows and games, and it doesn’t have to be unhealthy. When screen time is over, encourage them to draw, write or act out stories about their favourite characters so they don’t have to say goodbye when the screen goes dark.
  • Apps that monitor screen time can be a useful tool for getting a sense of your child’s overall screen use, but aren’t a substitute for household rules and conversations about mindful use.

Mitigate media effects by curating your children’s media, setting household rules and co-viewing when possible.

  • With younger kids, select their media options yourself, and only allow older kids to watch or play media you’ve approved. There can be worrying content in media for all ages. For kids over two, the quality of the content can make the difference between a positive and a negative viewing experience.
  • Whenever possible, co-watch with your kids. Educational media is most effective when it’s watched with parents, who can help to extend and reinforce the learning content. Co-viewing is also the best way to spot and talk about troubling content in media: MediaSmarts’ tip sheet Co-Viewing With Your Kids can help you do this. When you can’t watch together, make sure you’re familiar with the content of everything your kids are watching and playing so you can talk to them about anything that worries you. 

Model good media use for your kids.

  • Before we can teach kids to use screens mindfully, we have to do it ourselves. Pay attention to your own media use and think about what messages you’re sending with it. You can also develop a family screen plan to show that managing screen time is important for everyone, not just kids.
  • Think about ways to use screens together as a family, whether it’s video chatting with distant friends and relatives or using the internet to investigate hobbies and interests together.
  • Avoid talking about screen time and talk about how you use screens instead. Try not to use worlds like “addicted” that suggest screens are always bad or that you can’t control how you use them. 

Managing screen time – School-age children 

As children get older, they become more independent users of media and digital devices. This can bring new challenges, but it’s also an opportunity to help them learn to take control of their own screen use. Here are four ways to support and guide them as they get older.

Manage screen use:

  • Before letting your child have a mobile device like a smartphone, agree on a set of rules that includes when and where they’re allowed to use it. Screens should stay out of bedrooms, away from the dinner table and should be turned off and put away at least an hour before bedtime. You can use MediaSmarts’ Family Guidelines for New Tech Devices to get started.
  • If your child has a tablet or smartphone, encourage them to turn off notifications for as many apps as possible. That way, they won’t get a constant stream of updates about who liked whose photo, but instead will have to take a moment to open that app to check. In most mobile devices, you can turn off app notifications by going to Settings and then either Notifications or Apps and Notifications. Most mobile devices also have a setting called Do Not Disturb that let you turn all notifications off during certain times; however, there is evidence that using this feature may lead to more screen time, at least in the short term.[2] Switching your devices to greyscale can also lead to less and, in particular, less problematic screen use.[3]
  • While technological tools for managing screen time may be helpful if parents and children work together to make them part of a family media use strategy, they aren’t a substitute for parental. MediaSmarts’ research suggests that while they do put a “ceiling” on total screen time, they don’t necessarily reduce it overall. For instance, while youth whose parents used an app or device to limit screen time were less likely to say they spent more than three hours per weekday online, they were more likely to say they spent two to three hours online, and there was no difference in the number who spent fewer than two hours online. There is also evidence that using these apps leads to a narrower online experience: youth whose parents use an app or device to limit screen time are considerably less likely to use their phones to make videos, art or music, or to engage in civic activities online like posting about an event or cause they care about or supporting an activist group.[4] Finally, relying too heavily on apps or devices to limit screen time doesn’t prepare youth to manage their own screen use when they’re no longer under parental supervision.

Encourage meaningful screen use:

  • Help your kids see screen activities as something you choose, rather than as something that is on in the background or that you turn on as a habit.
  • Steer kids towards screen experiences that are active, social, educational or creative.
    • Active screen activities include games that require you to move your whole body to play (“exergames”) and screen activities that take you outside, such as geocaching or Pokémon Go. Note that as with all activities, safety precautions are needed: see A Parents’ Guide to Pokémon Go for tips on how to stay safe while doing outdoor screen activities.
    • Social activities are one where you have a meaningful interaction with someone you know, such as video chats with friends and family. There’s a world of difference between playing a single-player or a multiplayer video game where you only interact through the chat window and playing a multiplayer game with people who are sitting on the couch with you.
    • There is no shortage of good-quality educational content on the internet. Whatever your child’s interests, organizations like PBS, TVO, National Geographic and the National Film Board have video lessons, interactive educational games and even live events that will give them a chance to explore a wide range of topics.
    • Today’s digital devices make it easier than ever to be creative. Kids can make video games or animations with specialized tools like Game Maker or simple coding languages like Scratch, use their phones to make stop motion animations with apps like Stop Motion Studio or Clapmotion or explore music-making tools as simple as Chrome Music Lab or as versatile as Audacity.

Monitor the effect of screen use on your children’s lives. Watch for:

    • Anger or mood swings at the end of screen sessions
    • Negative impacts on sleep, relationships, grades or hygiene
    • Hiding or lying about screen use
    • Needing screen activities to cheer them up when they feel low.

While these are an indication that you may need to take a more active role in managing your children’s screen use (or helping them manage it), in some cases you may need professional support; see the section on Problematic Interactive Media Use below.

Continue to model good media use. As your children become more and more independent, they’ll look more and more to you to see what role screens play in adult life. You can also model responsibility by getting them involved in setting family screen rules.

Problematic Interactive Media Use

For most young people (and adults), the strategies above will be enough to build a healthy relationship with screen devices. In some cases, though, the issue is more serious. Problematic Interactive Media Use (PIMU) is defined as “the uncontrolled use of interactive screen media that results in negative consequences affecting an individual’s functioning,”[5] or, in plainer language, the “inability to regulate use of interactive media with negative effects on key elements of [young people’s] lives, including: sleep, nutrition, academic performance, social life, relationships [and] mental health.”[6]

Because PIMU it is often associated with other conditions such as depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and sleep disorders, however, it’s possible that the screen behaviours are a symptom or a coping behaviour related to those.[7] While there is no screening test specifically for PIMU, researchers have found the Internet Addiction Test and the Problematic and Risky Internet Use Screening Scale to be effective in identifying it in patients.[8] Dr. Michael Rich of the Boston Children’s Hospital Digital Wellness Lab identifies these common signs of PIMU:

  • Fixation on screen media
  • Decrease in school performance
  • Social withdrawal
  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • Anger/aggression, especially when asked to turn off [the] screen.[9]

If your child(ren) repeatedly and consistently show these signs, you may want to talk to your family doctor or pediatrician about getting professional support.

[1] Brisson-Boivin, Kara. (2018). “The Digital Well-Being of Canadian Families.” MediaSmarts. Ottawa. 

[2] Liao, M., & Sundar, S. S. (2022). Sound of silence: Does Muting Notifications Reduce Phone Use?. Computers in Human Behavior, 134, 107338.

[3] Holte, A. J., Giesen, D. T., & Ferraro, F. R. (2021). Color me calm: Grayscale phone setting reduces anxiety and problematic smartphone use. Current Psychology, 1-13.

[4] MediaSmarts. (2022). “Young Canadians in a Wireless World, Phase IV: Life Online.” MediaSmarts. Ottawa.

[5] Pluhar, E., Kavanaugh, J. R., Levinson, J. A., & Rich, M. (2019). Problematic interactive media use in teens: comorbidities, assessment, and treatment. Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 447-455.

[6] Rich, M. (2022) Identifying & Addressing Problematic Interactive Media Use (PIMU)

[7] Pluhar, E., Kavanaugh, J. R., Levinson, J. A., & Rich, M. (2019). Problematic interactive media use in teens: comorbidities, assessment, and treatment. Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 447-455.

[8] Nereim, C., Bickham, D., & Rich, M. (2019). A primary care pediatrician's guide to assessing problematic interactive media use. Current Opinion in Pediatrics, 31(4), 435-441.

[9] Rich, M. (2022) Identifying & Addressing Problematic Interactive Media Use (PIMU)