Expert gives advice on managing screen time for teens

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox
Dr. Elizabeth Ortiz-Schwartz talks at the Darien Depot on managing screen time for teens. - Sandra Diamond Fox photo
Dr. Elizabeth Ortiz-Schwartz talks at the Darien Depot on managing screen time for teens. — Sandra Diamond Fox photo

Can’t get your teens to look up from their iPhone or video game? How much screen time is too much? At one point should parents step in?
Those were some of the questions addressed last week at “Managing Screen Time and Social Media Use,” a free talk at the Darien Depot presented by Dr. Elizabeth Ortiz-Schwartz, a child psychiatrist and chief of the adolescent living program at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan.
About 50 people attended the 75-minute talk, which included time to ask questions at the end.

According to Ortiz-Schwartz, 92 percent of children carry a smartphone. “It’s a $75 billion annual revenue, worldwide industry, and the gaming industry is about one-third of all the entertainment market,” she said.
She said that the current generation of young people have had their entire lives online, since they were babies. “This is the first generation that they’re digital natives from the crib and up,” she said.
Ortiz-Schwartz spoke about how parents can help their teenagers make good decisions about technology and become good digital citizens. She also spoke about how teens can learn how to manage their personal safety online — “the footprint they leave in terms of what is appropriate for the world to know about them,” she said.
Ortiz-Schwartz acknowledged that there are some benefits from playing electronic games. This includes better hand-eye coordination and improved visual motor skills. However, she added that the focus one is getting with gaming is “not anywhere near reading a book.”
Games can be used for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, and can be therapeutic.
There is also a feeling of competence one can get when playing a game when they’re able to meet a challenge, she said.
In addition, there is a relatedness, a mutual interest with others who are playing the same game, in the sense that they can talk about the game, she said. “There is connectedness, especially if they’re doing something together as a team,” she said.
One concern about screen time, according to Ortiz-Schwartz, is sexual stereotyping. “There are unrealistic body images, especially the women warriors [who] look like men in terms of their buff appearances,” she said.
Additional concerns include the increase of aggression, a risk in social development in terms of the ability to communicate, and issues with maintaining eye contact, she said.
She also spoke about how addictive games might become. She said that today’s games are much more addictive than the old Minecraft games were, “where children are creating and building.”
Today’s electronic games “are very addictive because they find more surprises within the game,” she said. “There are chests and rewards. It makes you feel special when you are able to get these items and meet certain challenges, so it becomes really very, very addicting.”
She added that there is also a false sense of safety when one is on their screens.
“Screens create an artificial wall between what is a real interaction and what people feel might be a safe interaction,” Ortiz-Schwartz said. “A lot of people will feel compelled to say things online that they wouldn’t say to somebody face to face. They may share personal information or feel more comfortable meeting a total stranger, a person across the globe.”
She spoke about dopamine, “one of the feel-good chemicals that’s involved in pleasure,” she said. “It gives us a little bit of a boost, when we are doing something good.”
“Gaming, in some cases, is supposed to be 10 times what going for a bike ride or making friendships might be, but it takes a little bit longer for that effect — whereas [gaming] is like “Boom,” she said. “You’re getting so much at once. You also have an adrenaline rush. Your brain is reacting as if you’re in a war zone when you’re playing anything that is addicting.”
Alternatives, setting limits
Instead of being on their screens, she said that young people should spend time seeing their friends, participating in sports or other extracurricular activities, coming to places like The Depot to interact with others, or doing their schoolwork.
“They should make sure they are building positive relationships with family members,” Ortiz-Schwartz added.
She encouraged teens to “talk about what would you gain if you have more free time, more face to face time. We could be doing more crafts, games, family time, or learning a new skill,” she said.
One way to establish screen time limits with teens is to sign a contract with them. “Have an agreement in terms of time and duration, of how long you should be on your screens,” Ortiz-Schwartz said.
In addition, there are also ways that teens can self-monitor their own screen time. She said there is an app that tells how much time someone is using their phone, and the number of notifications they’re getting. There are also apps that block distractions, such as if teens are going back and forth from their homework to social media.
In regard to posting to Facebook, she said that parents should either have their teens friend them or establish a way to be able to check on what they’re posting.
She added that what people post can be looked at by prospective employers and college recruiters. “Once you post it, it can live there online forever,” she said.
Ortiz-Schwartz said teens should follow the rule that says, “If grandma can’t see it, then it shouldn’t be online.”
She added that electronic devices should not be in use during family mealtimes. “There are very few things that are emergencies,” she said. “Unless they are doing EMS and are active on call, there is no reason that they have to have their phone during a mealtime. [They should work on] decreasing or lowering notifications during mealtimes.”
She said that if parents feel their teens are on their cell phones too much, “It’s okay to take it away from them. At the end of the day, technology is a privilege and if you’re paying the cell phone bills, you should feel entitled to take it away if it becomes really problematic.”