Healthy Habits

Screen Kids

Keeping families on course through the ubiquitous reality of media and devices by Dr. Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane

Now that media, computers, mobile phones and tablets are a fixture in homes, schools and beyond, the impact has upsides and downsides, particularly for families. In their book “Screen Kids: 5 Skills Every Child Needs in a Tech-Driven World,” Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane delve deeply into how technology impacts identity and relationships and what parents can do to keep their family healthy and children developing well. Gary Chapman, PhD, is the bestselling author of “The Five Love Languages.” Arlene Pellicane is a mom, speaker, author of books including “Parent Rising” and host of The Happy Home podcast.

A subtle shift is happening in our homes. Parents and children alike are growing more comfortable with spending increasing amounts of time with our devices. Unknowingly, we’ve accepted a trade-off. We’re becoming less affectionate toward each other and more affectionate with our devices, holding them near at all times. Phones are like new babies. We coddle them. When they make a sound, we come running. We might be sharing the same space as our family members, but we are giving more physical attention and affection to our phones.

It’s time to treat our kids with more respect and attention than we give our phones. And we must fight for our kids to experience childhood before experiencing devices. A real childhood is filled with play, books, skinned knees, adventures and imagination, not just sitting, swiping and tapping. Although it may sound harsh, a phone is like a childhood killer. Once a child gets one, the door of childhood swiftly closes. Old hobbies and imaginary play are left behind for the intoxication of the digital world. Kids stop looking up and around at the world in curiosity—their heads go down and stay down.

Powerful forces are at work to get you and your kids on screens as often as possible. The device in your child’s chubby little hand (and yours) is not neutral. Former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris says the problem isn’t that people lack willpower. It’s that there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have: Phones and tablets are supercharged to engage your child on every possible level, designed to capture attention and never let go. 

You might wonder how video games can be like drugs since no substance is involved. The eyes are the only outward extension of the central nervous system, affecting the brain directly. That’s the gateway. “Smartphone screens light up the same area of the brain as opioids and cannabis. The rewards pathways mediated by dopamine respond to screens in very similar ways to opioids,” says Anna Lembke, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Stanford University Medical Center. So when you hear a parent nervously say, “It’s like my son is on drugs,” that’s much closer to the truth than most of us realize. 

Consider this clarifying question: Is technology bringing your family closer together or is it driving your family further apart? Believe it or not, wherever your family is today, you can make positive changes that will impact your child for the rest of his life.

Recommendations for Healthy Relationships

All screen media are not equal, which makes it impractical to come up with a one-size-fits-all time limit recommendation for the healthy, relational family. Playing Scrabble with Grandma online is different than playing a first-person shooter game. Creating videos is different than consuming videos. Watching a show with your parent and discussing it is different than watching unsupervised. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers an online media time calculator you can use to take a snapshot of your family’s current screen habits. You can also create a personalized family media plan at

Here are a few of the AAP recommendations:

  • For children younger than eighteen months, avoid screen media.
  • For children eighteen months to two years, choose high-quality programming and watch it with your children. 
  • For children two to five years, limit screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should view content together to help them understand what they are seeing. For children six and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media and the types of media.
  • Make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors necessary for health.
  • Designate media-free time, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations, such as bedrooms.

Parents, we must think about the purpose of technology in our homes, and then design a media plan that supports those goals. Once you have a plan, stick with it. Your kids probably won’t say, “Mom, it’s so great we’re cutting back to just half an hour of YouTube a day. That’s going to give me so much more time to get my reading done!” No, your child is going to kick and scream and exert tremendous pressure so you’ll cave in. Imagine yourself as a redwood tree, tall, immovable, with roots underneath the surface. No matter what your child says, you will not be moved.

Dr. Douglas Gentile from Iowa State University studied more than 1,400 families in two states. His team found that parents who set limits on the amount and content of children’s media make a significant difference in terms of kids getting more sleep, doing better in school, being more pro-social, being less aggressive and being at lower risk for obesity. He said, “Parents are in a more powerful position than they realize.” 13 Friend, you have more power than you think to help your child have healthy relationships based on empathy and love, not screens.

Excerpted from “Screen Kids: 5 Skills Every Child Needs in a Tech-Driven World” by Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane (©2020). Published by Northfield Publishing. Used by permission.