By Amy Newman

Parents have always worried about the number of hours kids spend with their eyes glued to the television screen. Today, parents have the same worry, but with a twist – the screen they’re worried about is the one in their child’s hands.

Research conducted in 2015 and 2017 by Common Sense Media, a non-profit dedicated to ensuring children have a positive experience with technology, shows that their worry isn’t misguided. Some of their key findings showed that:

This growing dependence has caused parents, educators, physicians and even those in the technology field to question just how connected kids should be, and the impact it has on their development. To get a better understanding, we asked psychologists and pediatricians for advice on how parents can navigate raising children in an increasingly technological world.

How much is too much?

“It isn’t about whether the technology is good or bad,” says Dr. John DeRuyter, psychologist and founder of Hope Counseling Center, Inc., in Fairbanks. “Technology is technology. The question that is really important is – how much is too much, and where do you draw the line?”

The American Academy of Pediatrics draws that line at two hours per day for children ages 2-5, and one hour for toddlers age 18-24 months, says Dr. Nadine Baker, a licensed clinical psychologist with Providence Medical Group Behavioral Health. Children under 18 months should have no screen time, with the exception of video chatting. For tweens and teens, there is no bright line rule, Dr. Baker says; instead, parents can gradually increase device time as children become more responsible and mature.

The reason for the limits has to do with how the brain develops. Children learn through the give and take of social interaction, play and exploration of the world around them, Dr. Baker explains, which is something even the most educational app can’t completely replicate.

“Animated shows and apps provide instant gratification, which isn’t an everyday experience,” she says. “Children are not learning how to pace themselves and wait. They’re not learning interpersonal skills of expressing themselves directly, or that some behaviors come with consequences.”

Excessive screen time can also lead to obesity, due to less time spent outdoors getting exercise; poor sleep; arrested social development; decreased attention span; exposure to cyber-bullying; and earlier exposure to risky behaviors, says Dr. Jeanette Legenza, a pediatrician with The Children’s Clinic in Anchorage.

And while technology in schools is common, personal devices in the classroom may be doing more harm than good.

“This issue is massive at schools,” says Jim Anderson, a math teacher at Dimond High School in Anchorage. “Kids are on their phone the whole time. They’re in the back watching videos, they’re playing video games, they’re texting, they’re Facetiming, they’re Snapchatting, they’re doing it all.

How to identify a problem

The amount of time a child spends glued to her smartphone is one indicator of an unhealthy attachment. So is her reaction when asked to put the device away.

“I don’t know of any kid who’s going to voluntarily give up something they like,” Dr. DeRuyter says. “But if kids can’t put down the phone and not be distracted by it, it’s too much.”

Dr. Legenza agrees that some resistance, grumpiness or even the occasional tantrum when asked to power down is normal. But constant battles over device usage, and repeated refusals to adhere to clearly defined limits is a warning sign.

“If they really have an inability to disengage and find pleasure or interest outside of their electronic world, then that signifies that there could be a problem,” she says.

Parents should also pay attention to how their child functions.

“Do they have friends who they do things with other than online? Are they doing well in school? Are they happy and well-adjusted, or involved in other activities?” Dr. Legenza asks. “At the point where any of those things start to become a problem, it may be because he’s spending too much time online.”

Setting limits – and making them stick

Despite the potential dangers, experts note that digital devices can provide benefits. In the right environment, and intermixed with a range of other activities such as reading and exercise, it can help children develop skills (like problem solving and hand-eye coordination) and broaden their knowledge and awareness of their world.

Making devices completely off-limits isn’t the answer. Instead, Dr. Baker says parents must “teach kids how to use it responsibly, as a way to enhance growth and development, instead of impeding it.”

From the start, parents should follow guidelines for recommended screen time, restrict access to apps and games that aren’t age-appropriate, and establish clear limits – like devices off until all responsibilities are completed, and no devices at the dinner table or in the bedroom – to help set the stage for healthy habits, explains Dr. Legenza.

“If people are just doing the basics, they’re going to see a lot of progress,” she says.

Parents can also model good digital habits by instituting screen-free family time, Dr. Baker adds. Highlighting the benefits of screen-free time can also help children buy in to the change. It’s the tactic Jim uses with his students to get them off their smartphones – at least for the 52 minutes every day they’re together.

Feeling he owed his students more, Jim pitched what he called a “cell phone-free experience” at the start of the year. Every day, they’d all set their phones in a silver briefcase. In exchange, he promised them a more engaged experience and some good-quality bonding time.

By the end of the first month, every one of his students was on board. Jim calls it a “game-changer.”

“The kids are more connected, their grades are better, there’s more involvement,” he says. “It’s beautiful how well it worked.”

For help developing a family media plan, visit