Kids and cell phones: The common sense approach to screens

Victoria S.
August 16, 2018
Are we facing an uphill battle with kids and cell phones? Screens are so pervasive nowadays that keeping our kids away from digital media seems impossible. So how can screen-savvy parents limit kids screen time in schools, in public, and in their own homes? To answer these questions, we asked an expert to weigh in. Caroline Knorr is Senior Parenting Editor at Common Sense Media, and she has some advice about how to turn screen media from enemy to ally in your digital parenting journey by using research, communication, and unbiased knowledge as your weapons.

Please introduce Common Sense media and tell us a little bit about your mission.

Common Sense is the leading independent nonprofit organization dedicated to helping kids thrive in a world of media and technology. We empower parents, teachers, and policymakers by providing unbiased information, trusted advice, and innovative tools to help them harness the power of media and technology as a positive force in all kids’ lives. Basically, we're all about helping families make smart media choices. We offer the largest, most trusted library of independent age-based and educational ratings and reviews for movies, games, apps, TV shows, websites, books, and music. Our Parent Concerns and Parent Advice articles help families understand and navigate the problems and possibilities of raising children in the digital age.

Why is it important to teach kids to be good digital citizens while they are young, and why is it important to learn before kids have devices of their own?

Just to be clear: Young children don't need technology to learn. They learn best by interacting with loving caregivers and through exposure to a rich variety of experiences. But educational standards are changing fast: digital literacy skills are often introduced in kindergarten, Common Core requires the use of technology, and even administrative tasks are completed online. All of the technology that kids love, from online playgrounds such as Animal Jam to video entertainment apps like YouTube Kids, familiarize kids with the "best practices" of digital citizenship. By interacting with others online, they learn how to communicate effectively. By following a website's or app's community rules they learn how to behave responsibly—even when could get away with less-than-stellar behavior. By following your rules for using Google, they learn self-regulation and how to use the internet productively. All of these experiences inform their later use of technology when the stakes are higher—such as when they have a real online presence, a social circle, and their actions have greater consequences. So, parents should support young children’s online pursuits within age-appropriate boundaries—which you can find on our website. However, the single most important thing for parents to know is that kids—especially young kids—really look up to and emulate parents' digital habits. Role-modeling healthy screen use, demonstrating how to use online tools responsibly and respectfully, and balancing screens with meaningful activities are all key to showing kids how to be good digital citizens.

Should parents limit kids screen time, even if the contents of their media diet are healthy?

That's the $64,000 question. And the answer is … probably. Over-exposure to screens has some negative correlations to kids' mental and physical well-being. As a matter of fact, the entire idea of "screen limits" originates from the American Association of Pediatrics’ recommendations for setting TV-watching limits, because there's a lot of research indicating that too much TV can negatively impact weight, food choices, school-readiness, interactions between parents and children, and even early sexual behavior. The AAP extrapolated this research to make recommendations about all screens—before knowing the actual negative impact as well as any positive benefits of interactive technology and the difference of its impact on kids' health. Now that there has been more research on the impact of digital media on kids, there are still a lot of things we don't know. We don't know, for example, exactly how much time online is too much—it varies so much from individual to individual based on so many different factors. Still, we DO know what IS good for kids—and screen use, even if it's with quality, age-appropriate content—is still a tiny slice of the overall optimal environment for kids to grow up in. That's why the AAP offers a handy media-use planner that helps families work together to figure out how much screen use is right for them. The planner starts with things kids must do—such as sleep, homework, chores, family time, and exercise. With the time that's left, you can add in screens.

How can parents’ technology use affect kids perceptions about screens and tech?

It's huge. Kids really learn what they live. And it's really important—but not a deal breaker—to start early, as kids follow their parents more when they're younger before looking to peers for social cues. Research actually confirms that when parents make healthy media choices, kids tend to choose higher-quality media and use it less. And there's some new research that shows that parents who misuse media—by being distracted by it and allowing it to interfere with their relationship with their kids—kids act out more. Here are some guidelines parents can use to affect kids' perceptions of screens and tech:

Use tech as a tool, not a treat.

Show kids how you use technology to get from place to place, learn things, and communicate. This gives kids the idea that technology is helpful but isn’t something to waste time on.

Use technology together.

Enjoy YouTube videos, photos, Facetime video calls, games, and other technology-induced bonding activities with your kid. Get your kid to show you the latest app or game; try to learn how to play it; and talk about it.

Draw boundaries.

When you get home from work, make a show of turning off your phone (or setting it to notify you only for crucial communications (and explain why you need to do that). Have device-free dinners and challenge the family to verbal games. Don't use your devices in your bedroom—and explain to your kids how it interferes with much-needed rest and relaxation.

How can parents turn screen media into an opportunity for dialogue and learning?

Co-view and co-play.

Have regular family game and movie nights. All of Common Sense Media's reviews offer a section called Families Can Talk About and you can refer to the conversation starters in these sections as a jumping-off point for great talks.

Take an interest in their media.

Talk about the movies and TV shows they watch, the games they play, and even what their friends are doing. Knowing what they're into will help you learn more about them as people. These kinds of talks—which can stem from an open-ended question such as, "How does Fortnite work?"—helps you identify points where you can inject your viewpoint and even your family values about deeper issues. Not every conversation needs to lead to that, but starting with little questions leads to bigger topics.

Use screen-based content as inspiration for offline activities.

Whatever they're interested in—whether it's science shows, puzzle games, or Disney Princesses—you can figure out a way to adapt it or find other outlets in the "real world."

Why is it important for parents to be discerning with the type and content of screen time media as opposed to an all-or-nothing approach?

Extreme positions—especially in parenting—tend to backfire. (Personally, every kid I know whose parents banned sugar when I was a kid gorged themselves as soon as they visited a home with more lax rules.) And there usually isn't a rational reason to enforce bans, unless its for totally age-inappropriate stuff (such as violent and sexual content), media that contradicts your family's values (such as anything that glorifies and rewards bad behavior), or things your kid has a really strong reaction against (such as scary stuff) as there is plenty of evidence to show that media and technology have positive benefits for kids. Finally, in today's world—where media and tech are literally everywhere 24/7—it's pretty easy for kids to get around your rules. At Common Sense Media, we think it's better for parents to teach kids how to find quality media, learn how to make good choices, learn to work within your framework and discover how to regulate their own usage. This is a process, and kids will test it in many ways. My son was a huge gamer in his tween and teen years to the point where I imposed parental controls to prevent his access. Guess what? He figured out a way around the parental controls. Eventually, he was able to find a balance of tech/media and life that made him feel happy. At critical times, you may feel that you need to enforce an all-or-nothing approach—and that's OK as an intervention. Kids do tend to have a heavy media use in the tween and teen years partly because they're escaping the confines of the family and seeking out their own interests with peers. So you have to be patient. Your kid may actually appreciate your stepping in if he or she is having trouble managing their use or if other problems are creeping in, such as social media pressure. But a ban is a temporary measure to get your family through a rough period. In general in times when things are running smoothly, following a media plan that's balanced is your best solution.

How does Common Sense Media help parents introduce screen media and technology to their kids in an age-appropriate and healthy way? Could you give some examples of the resources that you offer?

Our reviews, of Movies, TV Shows, YouTube channels, Books, Games, Apps, and Websites provide extremely comprehensive guidance on the content of products in these categories. We cover all of the parent "pain points" such as the level of sex, violence, swearing, and drug use something contains. And we also point out aspects that could have a positive impact on kids, such as positive role models and messages. Our reviews are based on childhood development guidelines and we are entirely independent of industry influence, unlike other rating organizations such as the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America and the ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board). In our Parenting Concerns section, we offer "deep dives" on a wide range of media topics including Social Media, News and Media Literacy, Cyberbullying, Violence, and even YouTube. We have a pretty loyal user base and they are constantly sending us issues that they're struggling with, such as whether it's OK for their kids to be friends with their teachers on Facebook. We also create overviews of technology, titles, and other media-and-tech related issues in our Parents' Ultimate Guides where parents can get all of their questions about specific topics answered. Recently, we have published Parents' Ultimate Guides to Roblox, Fortnite,, Livestreaming, Snapchat, and YouTube, and YouTube Kids. Finally, we provide news and advice articles designed to truly help parents manage media and technology in their daily lives. We offer how-to's, tips, first-person essays, scripts parents can follow word-for-word, and analysis of the latest research on media-and-tech related issues.

Teaching kids responsible digital habits

Like all aspects of parenting, regulating screen time isn’t as simple as an on/off switch. Helping your child become a good digital citizen and a smart, self-regulatory digital consumer takes research, planning, and communication. Relay wants to help parents find accurate and unbiased information about digital media so they can make informed decisions—that’s why $5 from every Relay purchase goes to Common Sense Media. We created Relay to aid in the effort to keep screen media age-appropriate. Keeping in touch with your kids shouldn’t come with strings attached. With Relay, you can focus on building digital citizenship and introducing media in your own time—without a smartphone screen to compromise all your hard work.  

Learn more


Start the discussion at our Community forums