How to Keep Your Kid from Getting Addicted to their Digital World

Two large Apple shareholders with a $2 billion stake have written an open letter to Apple. They are questioning the smartphone maker, saying it needs to respond to what’s seen as a “growing public health crisis” of smartphone addiction in young people.

The letter cites studies that show American teenagers receive their first smartphones at the age of 10 and spend an average of 4.5 hours a day on it (excluding texting and talking times). It further states that 78 percent of teens check their phones at least hourly, with half reporting they feel “addicted” to their phones. Apple says it has new features and enhancements in the pipeline to help parents control children’s use of iPhones and other devices. This is an important development in the discussion of how to strike a  healthy balance in your child’s digital world.

If you have attended my parent seminar or read my book, Parenting in a Digital World, you learned the average teen is consuming six to nine hours of digital media a day. This more time than many children are sleeping every night. In a peer-reviewed study that appeared in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, after 2010, teens who spent more time on new media (screens) were more likely to report mental health issues than those who spent time on non-screen activities. The study found kids who spent three hours or more a day on smartphones or other electronic devices were 34% more likely to suffer at least one suicide-related outcome—including feeling hopeless or seriously considering suicide—than kids who used devices two hours a day or less. Among kids who used electronic devices five or more hours a day, 48% had at least one suicide-related outcome.

As a School Resource Officer and as a Behavioral Threat Assessment Investigator, I have been witnessing a growing number of children struggling with depression and anxiety in our communities. In a recent survey I conducted of 350 eighth-grade middle school students in Orange County, California, almost 19% said they had had suicidal thoughts in the last year. We (I am a parent of two teenaged boys) need to protect our children’s minds. We can not make the Internet and mobile devices go away, but we can limit our children’s use and filter the content they are consuming. Here is how we are going to do it:

1. Set Priorities

When your child gets home from school, set priorities on the tasks they need to get done first. This may include homework, instrument practice, and possibly chores. These tasks must be completed first before entertainment screens (i.e., TV, Xbox, looking at Instagram, etc.) get turned on.

2. Set Limits

Setting limits on screen time may be the most challenging thing parents have to contend with. Screen time is defined as time spent using digital media for entertainment purposes. Other uses of media, such as online homework, don’t count as screen time.

How much screen time is too much? Today, in a world surrounded by digital media 24/7, defining screen time limits are difficult. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends Infants aged 18 months and younger should not be exposed to any digital media. For children 2 to 5 years of age, screen time should be limited to one hour per day. For kids ages 6 and older, parents can determine the restrictions for time spent using screens, but the research shows that 2 hours or less a day is ideal.

Mobile apps like Parental Board by help define screen time by allowing a parent to lock the phone at specific times throughout the day, removing the child’s temptation to use it when they are not supposed to, like during school hours or before bedtime.

3. Family Dinner and Screen Free Zones

Establish and enforce screen-free zones in your home. The dinner table is a great place to start when carving out screen-free zones in your home. In fact, there is a lot of research to show that screen-free family dinner has important psychological benefits for your children.
Shared family time, like family dinners, presents teaching opportunities for the parents — a time in which parents can model and educate on a variety of life skills such as coping and resiliency. The time together allows adolescents to express concerns and feel valued, all elements that are conducive to good mental health in adolescents.

How do you get the conversation going at the dinner table? You can find a treasure trove of family dinner conversation starters online with a simple search of “family dinner questions.” I recommend going to The Family Dinner Project’s website ( and see all the great ideas they have to enhance your family dinner time.

4. Engage More

It seems our “digital natives” are not as good as filling their non-structured time with physical activities as we were at their age. Today’s youth rely significantly on electronic devices to entertain them and consume their time. They may need a little help and direction. Naturally, the younger we start with our children doing this, the easier it will be.

5. Charge your teen’s mobile devices in your room at night.

When your children go to bed, take their mobile devices out of their rooms and charge them in your room. Electronic devices in a bedroom after lights out is a distraction from getting a good night’s sleep. Many teens have reported to me that merely having an electronic device in their bedroom, even one they know they should not use, causes anxiety. They know it’s there, and they are wondering what is going on. Remove the temptation and source of anxiety from their room. I recommend that parents not put TVs, computers, or game consoles in their children’s rooms either. I tell parents in my seminars: A bedroom is for quiet contemplation, a good book, and sleep – it should be a place where your child’s mind and body can relax and unwind.

The guidelines laid out here are not difficult to follow. They do however require intentionality. If this seems overwhelming, then take on the guidelines, one at a time.

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About the Author

Clayton Cranford
Clayton Cranford is a retired Sergeant from Orange County Sheriff's Department in California and owner of Total Safety Solutions LLC. Clayton is one of the nation’s leading law enforcement educators on social media, child safety, and behavioral threat assessments. Clayton is the author of the definitive book on cyber safety for families, “Parenting in the Digital World.” Clayton has more than 20 years of teaching experience and was awarded the 2015 National Bullying Prevention Award from the School Safety Advocacy Council, and the 2015 American Legion Medal of Merit. Clayton was a member of the County's Behavioral Threat Assessment Team, Crisis Negotiation Team, School Resource Officer program, and Juvenile Bureau.