Screen Time: Too Much? Probably!

Kaarin Anderson Ryan

It seems like many people have been lamenting the rise in dependence and time spent on screens, both for adults and for kids. However, we all have a hard time keeping it limited. In this post and in the upcoming series of articles, I will highlight some of the problems with screens as well as possible solutions for kids, teens and adults.

General Issues

Generally speaking, spending a lot of time on screens is not ideal, regardless of what you are doing on the device. Understandably, many of us are required to spend a significant amount of time on devices for work. These effects are exacerbated my additional time on devices before and after work. There are ways to minimize negative effects and these will be discussed in upcoming posts.

Physical problems

The way we hold our posture can be damaging, whether we are hunched over a keyboard or leaning our necks down to look at a phone or a tablet. Numerous studies over the past decade have shown differences in neck and spine alignment that is related to looking down at devices. In addition, physicians are reporting an increase in the number of teens and young adults who come in for office visits to address issues with neck pain.

Social problems

Spending a lot of time on screens may inhibit personal social interaction. Using devices for texting and/or social media can be a very easy and effective way to communicate and stay in touch with others. It can be great for planning events and get-togethers. But, using devices in place of real human contact can be detrimental. I have heard numerous people say that after being isolated during the pandemic, they felt that they had lost social skills and confidence about being with others.

Cognitive Problems

Does anyone feel like they have had a more difficult time with sustained attention in recent years? Not remembering things as well? Recent studies are showing that over-use of devices can have a negative impact on your brain. Using your phone for everything reduces your need to remember things yourself: Our phones can have our schedules and give us reminders, our phones have all our contacts at the tip of our fingers; we don’t need to memorize phone numbers to call people anymore; our phones have the internet so we can look up anything, anywhere, anytime; our phones have maps so we don’t need to pay as much attention to our location or how we got there; our phones literally have an app for everything. One study in The Journal of the Association for Consumer Research entitled “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity” found that even when people were able to refrain from looking at their phones, they had reduced cognitive capacity when the phone was present.

Social Media

There is so much to say about social media, including the benefits and harms of using these platforms. While there are certainly benefits to social media, there are also a tremendous number of problems associated with using social media. A report by Common Sense Media in 2019 shows that teens between 13-18 spend an average of 9 hours per day on social media. This in and of itself should be alarming to all of us. In addition to taking time away from family, engaging in real interpersonal conversation, and doing physical and outdoor activities, spending this much time using platforms like Instagram allow for one of the primary influences on teens to be an online world where truth and fiction are blurred. Some of the additional problems with social media include:

  1. Social media can be addicting. Getting likes and positive responses provides a bit of a dopamine rush, and social media sites are designed to target consumers to keep them connected.
  2. Fear of Missing Out. Social media sites emphasize all the fun and exciting things everyone is doing, encouraging people to keep checking to make sure they don’t miss out on anything.
  3. Bullying. Social media sites have been known to be a magnet for cyberbullying, which can lead to depression, anxiety, and in some cases to self harm or even suicide.
  4. Problems with self-image. Social media users tend to post the most flattering view of their physical appearance. Many platforms have filters that help people look unrealistically beautiful or fit. Seeing this all day can lead to low self-esteem when what someone sees in an actual mirror can’t compare to what is showing up on their feed from others.


Gaming can be fun and can be a good tool for socialization, if done in moderation. Nevertheless, excessive gaming can lead to serious problems. There are physical problems, including “gamer’s thumb”, carpal tunnel syndrome, trigger finger, eye strain and visual problems, and seizures. Excessive gaming may also be a factor in obesity. Gaming for some people may become an addiction that requires rehabilitation at a facility that removes access to games. Finally, gaming may include participation in excessively violent games. In some cases, it is possible that this may influence people to engage in violent behavior as the lines between gaming and reality can become blurred.

Internet Safety

The internet is kind of a wild west when it comes to oversight and safety. It is pretty easy to find off-limit sites or to connect with people who may not be safe. Some of the risks of using the internet, especially for children and teens, include access to violent images or videos, access to sexually explicit content, or interaction with online “friends” who may actually be predators or people with bad intentions. Not only does the internet pose these risks to children and teens, there are also constant safety concerns about hacking, phishing, and identity theft.

Family Time

Constant use of screens has had a negative impact on family time. As parents, we typically want to be the ones to help teach and guide our children, to share our values and interests, and to establish strong and healthy relationships with them. With screens and devices, we are effectively relinquishing much of this over to other influences. In the developmental psychology literature, it is commonly found that parental influence is primary in the earlier years of childhood, but that when children approach middle school the peer influence starts to become more powerful than the parental influence. This is why it is critical for parents to help their children learn values, respect and responsibility at an early age, with the expectation that these underlying characteristics will help them navigate the teen years in the most healthy way. By giving over so much of the childhood time to a screen, parents are reducing their opportunity to develop strong and healthy relationships with their child or instilling positive character and values.

Role Modeling

Parenting can be exhausting and stressful. Parents often find that they are as dependent on their screens as their children. We often hear children complaining about their parents being on their phones all the time. In order to teach healthy screen habits, as parents and adults we must model healthy screen habits. This will not only benefit families, but it will also benefit parents by reducing many of the risks noted above that are correlated with using screens a little too much.

Stay tuned for some strategies to help overcome the challenges with screens!

Habits: Tip of the week #3

Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD

For our last habit tip, let’s look at socialization. In our busy schedules, we often don’t make time for real, in person social time. We may do a lot of texting or social media, but it is not healthy to replace real contact with these forms of communication. To add one social habit, consider doing something new each week with someone outside of your current routine. This may mean a walk or a coffee with a friend, it may mean playing a game with your partner or your family, or it may mean making more effort to do unique things with people such as going to museums, parks, gardens, or shows with someone. Once you incorporate something small, it will become easy and routine to include more real life socialization in your week.

Habits: Tip of the Week #2

Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD 2.8.23

While most people have bad habits they want to change, most people also have a good habit they would like to add or increase. It can be difficult to incorporate new habits into your routine, but once you do those habits will become actual habits that you don’t have to think about much. So, pick one good habit you would like to do more, and set a goal for increasing it. Take increasing exercise as an example: Maybe start with once a week and work up to daily, or start with a small amount of time each day and build up to your actual goal. Sometimes it is easier to build good habits by starting with small, manageable steps instead of trying to change everything all at once.

Habits: Tip of the Week #1

Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD

Breaking Bad Habits

We all have at least one bad habit we would like to break, most people probably have more than one. To help break bad habits, start with just one. Pick a habit and focus your intention over the next week on changing that habit. Something that may help you is to replace it with something else. For example, you can replace nail biting with chewing gum or using a fidget item. You can replace eating too many sweets with eating fruit. You can replace spending too much time looking at your phone with reading, drawing, or playing a game. Remember that the more you do this for any habit, the more automatic it will become.

Habits: The good, the bad, and how to use habits to your advantage.

Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD

Habit: (1) A settled tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up. (2) An automatic reaction to a specific situation.

We all have habits, and practice them every day. Some habits we are quite aware of, while others may have gotten to the point of being so automatic that we don’t even think about them. We have good habits, we have bad habits. We have habits we want to change or improve. And with the start of the new year, many people seek to push the re-set button and focus on resolutions that are often about changing habits.

To help understand how habits affect your daily life, take a moment to consider your routine each day. How many of the things you do come automatically, without you having to think much about it? For many people, there may be a standard morning routine to start the day. This could include coffee, showers, breakfast, getting kids ready for school, driving to work, etc. With a regular morning routine, little thought needs to go into the steps and as a result the routine is not very difficult. But, if someone were to tell you to change one or more elements of this routine, you would have to slow down and think about what you were doing, and become more consciously aware of each step.

The nice thing about habits is that once you develop a set of good habits, you can be very productive without having to think too hard about it. It is interesting to note that while good habits do not take a lot of cognitive effort, is does not mean that engaging in positive habits is especially easy. Take working out as an example. If you have not been working out and you start to focus on it, initially it takes a lot of cognitive effort – talking yourself into it, pushing yourself to do it, finding the time to do it. But if you start working out every day at a certain time, it becomes a habit so that each day at that time you automatically mentally prepare yourself for that activity. This does not make the actual workout easier per se, but it does take the decision and planning out of the equation.

There has been a lot of research on habits, including behavioral research, cognitive research, and neurological research. There has been speculation about how long it takes to break bad habits or develop good habits. One common idea is the 21-days to change a habit, which is based on work done by the plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz in the 1960s about how people adjusted following plastic surgery. However, this was not inclusive of the multitude of habits and behaviors that people generally seek to change. More recent research has identified that habits can take anywhere from 18 – 254 days to acquire, given a wide variety of habits people were seeking to adopt. How long it takes to change a bad habit, or acquire a new habit, will depend on the person and the circumstances.

Habits as automatic behaviors. Habits by definition are routine and automatic. A simple habit, such as biting one’s nails, may occur automatically without the person even thinking about it. A more complex habit, such a working out, may take a little more focus, but if it is part of a daily routine it becomes habitual. Part of changing habits is considering what triggers the habit. For nail-biting, it may be stress or boredom. For working out, it may be the time of day. To stop nail-biting, one needs to heighten awareness of stress or boredom triggers, then develop a better habit to use (a fidget item for example), and practice the new habit until it becomes automatic. For something like working out, it will be more about establishing a habitual routine, so that stopping at the gym after work, or starting your day with a run, becomes the routine and therefore reinforces that habit.

Looking out to the new year and new possibilities for your own habits and routines, consider what you want to change. Do you have one bad habit you would like to eliminate? Is there a new habit you would like to acquire? Over the next few weeks I will go over some tips for changing habits in several areas:

  1. Break one bad habit.
  2. Develop one new social/interpersonal habit.
  3. Develop one new positive health habit.

Stay tuned for upcoming weekly tips!

Building Positive Behaviors: Tip of the Week #3

Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD

With Christmas right around the corner, it is tempting sometimes to respond to negative behaviors by threatening to cancel presents, or to remind that Santa is watching – so kids better behave. While these types of threats can help with immediate reductions in behavior problems, remember that these are only temporary fixes. For long-term positive behaviors, focus on consistency when it comes to noticing and responding to good behavior.

Building Positive Behaviors: Tip of the Week #2

Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD

When you think about building positive behaviors, it is important to have some specifics in mind. What behaviors would you like to see more often? Pick a couple behaviors, such as using a nice tone of voice, being helpful, or completing tasks, and make sure to offer obvious rewards whenever you see those behaviors. Rewards may include something as simple as attention from you, or they may include things that are more tangible such as small tokens or treats, or privileges such as screen time or staying up late. The most important thing is to recognize and emphasize the behaviors you want to see more often.

Building Positive Behaviors: Tip of the Week #1

Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD

It is Thanksgiving week – this is a time when many of us take a moment to think about gratitude and all the things we have to be thankful for in our lives. As you consider gratitude this week, look at your kids and pay special attention to the things they do well that you are actually thankful for on any given day. It can be anything at all – from playing nicely with siblings, to cleaning up after themselves, , to simply being cooperative, to helping out on Thanksgiving Day. Any small thing: Take note of it and make sure you tell them how thankful you are for those positive behaviors this week. Happy Thanksgiving!

Rewards!! How to motivate positive behaviors from kindergarten through high school.

Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD

“Why won’t they just behave?” This is a question I have heard too many times to count, from frustrated parents to talented teachers, about kids of all ages. Indeed it is a great question, and one that may have complex and different answers for different kids. Today we are going to go through some basics on how to build and strengthen positive behaviors at home and at school. As you read, keep in mind that these are general tools and concepts built on years of research and practice in the field. Individualized specific plans with professional guidance and input may be needed at times, and asking for this type of help when necessary may be of great benefit to kids, families, and teachers.

What are “positive behaviors”?

You may be wondering what I mean by building positive behaviors. When people ask about behavior problems, lots of times they are mainly focused on the things that are difficult to manage. This can include disrespectful language, lack of cooperation, backtalk, verbal outbursts, or full-on tantrums. The focus here is the behaviors we do not want to see. When I talk about building positive behaviors, I am talking about the behaviors we want to see more of – using respectful language, cooperating around the house or classroom, using good coping skills to manage frustration. Often, when we see the negative behaviors we respond to those wholeheartedly, but we can tend to let the positive behaviors go by unnoticed at times. Why would we do this? Because sometimes those positive behaviors basically meet our expectations, so we don’t notice them as much. But the negative behaviors? Those are hard to ignore.

So, how to I build positive behaviors?

It would be easy to say just pay attention to the behaviors you like and ignore the ones that you don’t like. But parents and teachers know it is not as easy as it sounds to do something like that. To build positive behaviors, it is important to be intentional about not only giving attention to the behaviors you like to see, but also by helping kids learn what to do when they are upset. For example, instead of talking back to you, what would you want your child or student to do instead? It may depend on the situation. Maybe you would want them to ask if they could finish what they’re doing before they start what is is you’re asking them to do. Maybe you would want them to let you know they want something by asking nicely, but then also using good coping skills if they can’t have what they want. To be intentional, you need to proactively teach what it is they can do during times of conflict.T his should not be done during the conflict, but should be a conversation you have when everyone is calm. It is then possible to prompt these positive behaviors when things are starting to become difficult. Respond to positive behaviors with verbal praise, and with other rewards when possible.

What if I want a reward system to help build positive behaviors?

There are many ways to set up positive reward systems at home and in the classroom. The best reward system is going to be tailored to the needs interests of the children, the parents, and the classroom. Just setting up a star chart and saying “You will get stars when you behave” might not be enough. Here are some suggestions for setting up a successful reward program.

  1. Choose the token you want to use. The token is anything that helps track positive behaviors. This can be stars or stickers on a chart, a penny jar, a marble jar, points, etc. You may want to talk to your children about what they would like – is a child is really into rockets, consider rocket stickers. If a child likes the idea of seeing a jar fill up with something to show progress, consider a marble jar or a penny jar.
  2. Attach the tokens to meaningful rewards. Rewards can be anything from staying up late, to a dish of ice cream, to a trip to a shop with a set amount of pocket money to spend. You can decide how many tokens are needed for different rewards but be sure to set your child up for success. If they need 150 tokens to get a reward they may lose interest, and if it is too easy they will not form better behavioral habits. You will need to find the right balance.
  3. Make sure the child knows what behaviors will earn stars. (Or stickers, or happy faces, or points, or pennies, etc). If you make a list of behaviors that will earn tokens, it will help your child process what the expectations are. If you see wonderful behaviors that are not on the list, you can always give a bonus token.
  4. Try to give positive feedback right away so children connect the reward specifically to what they just did. If you are not close to your star chart or marble jar, you can tell them they just did a great job with something and remind them that they will get a sticker or other token as soon as you get home.
  5. Keep rewards separate from consequences. Once a child has earned a reward (token), don’t take it away if they misbehave. You may want to use that opportunity to remind them of positive behaviors or possible coping skills when they are upset and prompt them to use good coping skills if they want to work towards their rewards.
  6. If you are struggling with significant behavioral challenges or you are overwhelmed with how to set up a good program in your home, consider finding a therapist with a behavioral background to help you get things set up.

What about teenagers?

Teens are probably, for the most part, too old for classic token systems. However, you may benefit from setting up guidelines and expectations for behavior at home. At this stage, you could consider making desired activities contingent on meeting expectations. For example, if your expectations include getting homework done and cleaning up after themselves, you may make weekend activities with friends or access to the car dependent on them having their responsibilities taken care of first.

Stay tuned!Over the next few weeks I will be posting weekly tips on building positive behaviors.

Burnout: Tip of the Week #3

Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD 11.5.22

This week’s tip is to help with signs of burnout in the early to middle stages, which are listed in my September burnout article. Some signs in the level of burnout include denial, withdrawal, and behavioral changes such as irritability or even aggression. If you have noticed that your work-life balance is getting out of hand and you are starting to feel and act differently, it is time to seek support from co-workers, supervisors, and other trusted individuals. It may also be helpful at this point to seek outside support or counseling to help you develop a plan to improve your stress management and re-align your expectations for yourself. This could be helpful for improvement with how you are feeling now, and will also help prevent advancing to further stages of burnout or future situations that could lead to burnout. Remember that creating balance every day – between work and home, with your eating and self-care, and with sleep – will help maintain the boundaries needed to prevent and manage burnout.

Next up: Rewards! How to motivate positive behaviors from kindergarten through high school.