NEW YORK (CNN) — When it comes to screen time, parents should start worrying less about the amount of time their teenagers are online and instead focus on the quality of the content.
In the age of online classes and Zoom friends and family meetups, the quality of teen content is more important than ever, according to a report by Common Sense Media released on Wednesday.
"All screen use is not equal, especially at a time when other avenues of connection and learning are shut off," said Michael Robb, an author of the report and senior director of research at Common Sense Media.
Digital media should be used as a "social safety net" for adolescents to interact with friends and bond with family members who they can't see in person, he said.
It's still important to balance the screen time with other activities and ensure that your child is sleeping enough and finishing schoolwork, Robb added.
Many parents are rigid in the amount of time they allow their children to stare at a screen, Robb said, and they commonly quote older American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines of no more than two hours of screen time daily.
Those guidelines, dating back to the early 1990s before mass market smartphones and tablets, are outdated and do not apply to all screen time, according to Dr. Nusheen Ameenuddin, a chair on the AAP council of communications and media.
The 2016 guidelines are much more fluid in the amount of screen time a child should receive, and they apply specifically to recreational screen time specifically, said Ameenuddin.
Tweens, Teens, Tech & Mental Health, a new report by @CommonSense, provides guidance to identify adolescents who may be most vulnerable, while acknowledging the critical importance of technology for teens, esp during the #COVID19 pandemic. Learn more: https://t.co/CaJfBUXGwqpic.twitter.com/5FYqbC86e1— Common Sense Media (@CommonSense) August 3, 2020
With many schools going online, Ameenuddin said it's important to note that schoolwork does not count toward screen time limits. However, it's necessary to balance school with activities offline, too.
"You're sitting in front of a screen for several hours," she said."That's not good or healthy for anyone."
The digital divide continues
It's not all good news. A child's socioeconomic status also plays a role in their mental health and ability to interact with technology, the Common Sense Media report also found. Children in families with a lower socioeconomic status had less support from their parents when it came to navigating the online world.
"Our most vulnerable adolescents, specifically those who are Black and that come from lower-income households, are unable to reliably access and receive support," Robb said.
These same teens are at a higher risk for mental health problems, which could carry over into online spaces, according to the report.
Young girls are also facing similar outcomes in the digital world. There is a correlation between a rise in depression and suicide among young girls along with a rise in technology use, although causation is uncertain, according to the report.
Robb said there is not any established link that technology worsens or causes mental health issues.
Teens with anxiety or body image issues are more likely to report more negative online experiences, he said. However, adolescents who are a part of a marginalized community often report benefits of having an online community for support that they might not receive elsewhere.
What parents can do
Parents should begin to learn about the online content their child is engaging in rather than counting the minutes on the clock, according to Sonia Livingstone, a professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics and commentator on the report.
She suggested that parents look out for three C's when monitoring their children's online activities: content, connections and context.
For content, children should be engaging in educational content as well as content that stimulates their imagination. Livingstone also encourages children to connect with friends and family online and to not view that as strictly screen time. Lastly is context, which is where she encouraged parents to look at how their child is interacting on the internet and what else they've done with their day.
"If your child has been running around all day and comes back and watches a film that takes over two hours or plays a computer game, they've been running around," Livingstone said. "So the context is they've had their exercise, they can't run the whole day ... judge in the balance."
All screen use is not equal, especially at a time when other avenues of connection and learning are shut off.
–Michael Robb, Common Sense Media
Parents also should be more understanding of their children's online consumption during the pandemic.
"Quantity is way up, and I think it's become really problematic for everyone to criticize themselves for that, because people are faced with the most extraordinary circumstances," Livingstone said.
Lastly, adults need to engage with their children and ask questions about their online activities. Livingstone said that when she interviews adolescents, many of them say they wished their parents would ask why they like a certain game or activity.
Livingstone said parents have told her, "my child is always playing Fortnite," which she in turn asks if they've asked their children what they like about the game. Most times, the parents haven't asked their child that before.
A greater responsibility
While parents do play a crucial role in navigating and monitoring their child's online experiences, some believe that social media companies and the government also need to do their part to create safer online spaces.
Social media companies need to take accountability for the large number of adolescents using their services to create safer online environments, said Andrew Yang, a former Democratic Presidential candidate and commentator on the report.
Social media companies should first verify the ages of children on their sites, Yang said. About half of adolescents have some form of social media by age 12, according to another Common Sense Media report.
"Social media companies do have some age restrictions, but it is absolutely the case that millions of kids easily circumvent those restrictions because there's really no effort made to actually check how old the kids are," Yang said.
The report also stated that more children are looking up mental health information online, but there are also almost no digital mental health tools designed for adolescents.
In his commentary for the report, Yang discussed the need for public schools to include curriculum about mindfulness and the responsible use of technology. "In this period of time, we have to try and deliver people tools online," Yang said. "It makes sense to me that there are very few mental health resources that are available for kids, so we should be investing in those."
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