Six-year-old Sasha Rozofsky can open the YouTube tab on her family’s Chromebook with ease, as she happily demonstrates one summer evening in the dining room of her Bethesda home. “I really like this one,” she says as she hits play on a video featuring two of the popular L.O.L. Surprise! dolls. The video has 1,424,475 views. Her mother, Libbie, groans. “We’re not sure how many views Sasha has contributed to that,” she says.
In the video, the tiny plastic dolls—siblings named Witchay Babay and Little Witchay Babay—complain in high-pitched tones that they need mom and dad to feed them. Enter the voice of a perky female narrator, who vows to make “custom parents” for the sisters using Barbie and Ken Fashionista dolls. On the screen, a pair of well-manicured hands pulls Barbie and Ken out of their boxes, painting their eyes violet and their clothes black with gold crescents to match the Witchay Babay look. “That’s a good one,” Sasha says, eyes on the screen. “They’re painting stuff, and I like art.”
Her older sister, Lily, 9, rolls her eyes. “We’ve tried to stop her from watching this because it isn’t very educational,” Lily says, gently prying the Chromebook from her sister’s hands so she can play online math games. Sasha grabs her father’s iPhone from the dining room table, enters the passcode and returns to YouTube. She likes the phone better anyway. “More apps,” she says.
Rozofsky says she’s struggling to manage her kids’ screen time and tired of constantly negotiating their use of the family’s mobile devices. Lily keeps nagging to get her own phone, even though the fourth grader has been told repeatedly that she’ll need to wait awhile longer. Sasha’s insatiable appetite for videos shows no sign of waning. When the house gets eerily quiet, it usually means that she has a device in her hands and YouTube on autoplay, looping in one video after another without a break. Rozofsky once caught her younger daughter hiding her father’s iPhone under her pillow at bedtime. And both girls, recognizing their parents’ weakness for “educational” online material, will argue that whatever they’re watching or playing falls into that category.
“It’s a huge uphill battle,” says Rozofsky, who often calls for a “digital diet” when she feels her daughters have been glued to their screens too long, or when they fight over time on a device. They’ll whine a bit, and she’ll tell them to go outside, read a book, or play with their toys, even if it means pulling out the dozens of real-life L.O.L. dolls that Sasha begged her to buy after watching the videos. “But the first thing Sasha wants to grab is the iPhone, the iPad or the Chromebook,” Rozofsky says. “I’d prefer that she play with her own games instead of watching someone else play with theirs.”
Angst-ridden parents struggling to cope with the disruptive force of the screens in their homes are the new normal, and the hand-wringing is no longer confined to their teenagers’ digital lives. Today’s modern family operates in an “always on” digital environment in which younger kids have quick and easy access to a wide array of content when and where they want it—unless mom and dad intervene, creating tensions unrivaled by old-fashioned squabbles over the use of the family telephone or television.
“These old shared devices were stationary and didn’t go with you,” says Amanda Lenhart, deputy director of Better Life Lab at New America, a D.C.-based think tank. “With mobile devices, everybody is always connected, and the information they deliver is fed to us in binge-y ways, making it much harder for kids and their parents to have a balanced relationship with screens.”
By age 9, 42% of kids have their own tablets, up from 7% in 2013 and 1% in 2011, according to a 2017 survey by Common Sense Media. Of the kids in the United States who have a smartphone with a service plan, about 45 percent got the phone at ages 10 to 12, largely because their parents wanted to be able to reach them easily and track their whereabouts, according to a Nielsen/HarrisX survey conducted in 2016. The technology offers conveniences, both practical and frivolous. It educates and entertains. Rozofsky’s children watch Russian cartoons on the iPad as they try to learn their father’s native language. Even the toy-unboxing videos, with their predictable format, serve a purpose by surprising young children without frightening them, experts say. And it’s a bargaining chip when parents want to keep younger kids quiet in a car, restaurant or doctor’s office.
But the technology is also a nuisance when it’s time for dinner or bed, says Susan Apgood, who has three boys, including 12-year-old twins. In her Bethesda home, there’s a laptop that the family shares, a PlayStation 4 (PS4) video game console, an iPod touch for each twin, an iPhone for their 14-year-old brother, and an iPad. One of the twins is especially attached to the game console, which he uses to connect with school friends.
“He and his friends put on their headsets and meet online at certain times to play. They discuss the games, but I also hear them talking about school and teachers and what they’re learning. It’s a new way to socialize,” Apgood says. The problem arises when it’s time to unplug. “When I came home from work last night, I asked him to set the table, and he said he needed one minute because he was building something in Minecraft,” she says. “The one minute turned into two, then five. Sometimes I have to physically turn off the device, and I know he’ll throw a tantrum.”
He’s not a moody kid, she says, but he’ll toss his headset to the floor, stomp around and whine for a minute or two if she shuts down a game. “He’ll say it’s not fair,” Apgood says, “and that he never gets to hang out with his friends.”
A study this year on the screen habits of kids ages 5 to 12 by the marketing firm Insight Strategy Group found that boys outpace girls in the use of game-based sites like Minecraft and Roblox, while girls more often use Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok (the lip-syncing app formerly known as Musical.ly that kids use to make, share and watch music videos using filters and special effects). The firm also reported that 52% of kids in that age group have at least one account on a major social media platform—YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter. But they spend more time on YouTube than anything else, even the blockbuster video game Fortnite, according to a Bloomberg News report that cites Insight Strategy’s data.
The impact of screen time on a child’s behavioral and social development remains unclear due to a lack of long-term research. But the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and more recently the World Health Organization have recommended limiting or eliminating screen time for children younger than 5, emphasizing that kids of all ages have to sit less, play more and establish healthy sleeping and eating habits in order to thrive. The AAP recommends no more than one hour of screen time per day for children ages 2 to 5, but the guidelines for older kids are vague, with the AAP advising parents to set “consistent limits” that suit their family’s lifestyle. But many parents say they can barely get dinner on the table at a reasonable hour after a long day at work, let alone curate their kids’ digital lives.