It is not as simple as you may think
Screentime usage has long been a critical concern for many parents. Even before tablets and smartphones, parents have been worried about how much time children spend watching television, cartoons, and movies — and playing video games.
Most parents know that excessive screen time is detrimental to the physical and emotional wellbeing of young children, but the digital world has become an inextricable part of the lives of children. As a society, we’ve become more reliant on technology and digital platforms in all aspects of our lives — the boundaries between digital and ‘real life’ can quickly become blurred.
According to research, children under the age of two spend twice as much time in front of a screen these days than they did twenty years ago — and many are spending far more time in front of a screen than the recommended daily guidelines.
The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages media use for children under two and recommends one hour of high-quality screen time activities for children between two and five.
According to Common Sense Media, screen use among tweens aged 8 to 12 is roughly 5 hours and 33 minutes, and 8 hours and 39 minutes for teens aged 13–18 in teens from ages 13–18. This is a 17% increase from 2019 to 2021.
With all things digital, technology, and screen-based forming such a big part of our lives, some essential questions to visit include:
What is ‘high-quality’ screen time?
How does screen time promote or undermine my child’s emotional wellbeing?
What can I do to support my child’s healthy interactions with screen time?
Screentime & Your Child in the Modern Age
The answers to these questions are more complex than you might think because the ways we use different digital platforms are nuanced — children engage with various technologies in many ways. Some of them are good, and some of them are not so.
Looking specifically at social media and video games, much of the research in this area has focused on the negative impact of these technologies on children’s wellbeing. Studies have linked excessive use to increased mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, low mood, poor self-esteem, and low self-image.
Less research has been conducted on the potential beneficial impact of these technologies on children’s development and relationships. One study from 2016 exploring the effects of video game usage found “no significant associations with any child self-reported or mother- or teacher-reported mental health problems. High usage was associated with decreases in peer relationship problems.”
While the researchers in this study seemed to find some positive effects related to playing video games, more research is definitely needed in this area.
The Development of a Narrative Identity
An essential developmental aspect of childhood is the discovery of a healthy sense of self and for young people to develop a healthy narrative around their identity.
Referred to by psychologists as Narrative Identity, this is the process we all go through to understand how our life events and experiences inform our identity. Developing a healthy narrative identity forms a strong foundation for young people’s and children’s long-term wellbeing.
So, when considering whether screen time — including video games — is promoting or undermining their emotional wellbeing, it might be worth asking: how is this aiding their sense of narrative identity?
3 Ways to Help Children Develop a Healthy Narrative Identity
Developing a healthy narrative identity doesn’t happen overnight, so the good news is there are many ways to promote and support it with your child.
Here are three things children need to be able to develop a healthy narrative identity:
The Need for Autonomy
Children need to feel like they are the agents of their own lives and can make choices aligned with their personal values. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples:
Digital Media Supporting Autonomy: Your child uses their social media to follow accounts that help them nurture their passions and engage in a meaningful way with content that matters to them.
Digital Media Undermining Autonomy: Your child often uses Instagram to post stories about them that fit into unhealthy standards of beauty and what is considered ‘cool.’ Your child feels unable to express themselves authentically on these platforms.
The Need for Relatedness
Your child needs to feel related to others and feel a sense of community. Here’s a look at some examples:
Digital Media Supporting Relatedness: Your child’s personal values are not aligned with the values or beliefs of the immediate social groups they are a part of — perhaps they are beginning to identify as LGBTQIA+ or feel different than their peers. Online, they discover support groups with others like them and feel part of a broader, connected community.
Digital Media Undermining Relatedness: Your child is overly concerned with the number of likes and social validation they receive. They feel disliked or disconnected when their online self does not get the surface-level approval they would like. They spend more time worrying about a virtual connection than forming meaningful relationships in person.
The Need for Competence
Children need to feel capable of overcoming challenges and achieving their goals. Again, let’s take a look at some examples of this:
Digital Media Supporting Competence: Video games, such as Celeste, center around the idea of facing and successfully overcoming adversity. This can be a powerful message to children whose environment does not promote the same kind of empowerment.
Digital Media Undermining Competence: Your child begins to identify with ‘victim stories’ they come across online. These people speak about themselves in a way that creates what is referred to as a ‘Contamination Narrative’. These narratives focus only on challenges, struggles, difficult circumstances, and hardships — where individuals cannot move past these circumstances. These narratives usually move from one bad thing to another. This reinforces a young person’s ideas of being unable to overcome challenges, which can lead to long-term mental health challenges.
Supporting Healthy Digital Media Usage
It can be difficult as a parent to monitor the kind of screen time and digital use your child engages in — especially as they grow older. It’s natural to feel concerned about the impact on their development and emotional health.
Several factors influence how your child uses and relates to digital media (including you, their peers, school environment, role models, social & cultural norms etc.), and how they use technology is ultimately outside your control.
However, focusing on nurturing your child’s need for autonomy, relatedness and competence is within your control. In doing so, you’ll be supporting them to learn how to do the same for themselves, directly impacting how they use different technology.
Modeling healthy behavior as a parent by using digital media in a way that is nurturing to your wellbeing is another critical way to support your child to do the same.
If you feel your child’s usage is undermining their narrative identity development, psychology and psychotherapy research tells us that we can go back and edit, revise and re-interpret our life story and narrative identity in positive, meaningful ways. Developing a ‘poor’ narrative identity doesn’t mean we are stuck with that identity for life. It can be changed with the right support. How do you think your child is interacting with the digital world? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Nour Azhari is an Identity, Resilience & Mental Wellbeing expert on a mission to contribute to a more mentally resilient & emotionally healthy society: one parent, one school, and one child at a time.