Secondhand Screen Time: Why Experts Are Calling It the New Secondhand Smoking

Updated: Nov. 24, 2022

Paying attention to your kids' electronics usage is smart, but there's another gadget-related danger that also needs to be on your radar.

Many parents are vigilant about their kids’ use of electronic devices and set strict limits for them. Of course, they want to protect their children from the potentially harmful effects of too much screen time, as well as other potential dangers they can encounter on apps and online platforms. But there’s another device-related danger that parents may be completely overlooking—and it might be hurting their kids just as much as traditional screen time.

Shining a light on a surprising problem

It’s been dubbed “secondhand screen time.” And yes, it’s meant to mirror the danger that we now know all too well in regard to secondhand smoking. With secondhand screen time, kids are indirectly exposed to screens being used by someone else close to them. “Generally, we are talking about children who are cared for by adults who spend a significant amount of time on devices and the negative consequences that can occur when they experience screens being such a dominant part of the adult’s life and activities,” says Nicole Beurkens, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the brand ambassador to Qustodio, a parental control app designed to manage kids’ online activity and keep them safe. “Some of the specific concerns involve the addictive nature of devices and how watching parents use devices constantly from a very young age can make kids more prone to addictive behavior with devices as they grow.”

This can also lead to behavior-related problems. “Research shows that children have a tendency to exhibit more acting-out behaviors when parents spend excessive time with their devices,” explains Beurkens. “Often, this is the only way kids can get a parent’s attention, even though it typically ends up being negative attention. Excessive device use, especially in the presence of a child, also sends the message that the device and activities on it are more important than the child. This can lead to a breakdown in the parent-child relationship, as well as self-esteem and other emotional issues for the child.” Here are some other ways parents ruin their kids’ trust.

So, how much screen time is too much?

It’s important for parents to be conscientious about placing limits on electronics, both for themselves and their children. “The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued guidelines for screen time and children from infancy through the teen years,” says Beurkens. “The general consensus is that young children should have very little exposure and only high-quality programs they view with an adult. As they get into the preschool years, the general guideline is one hour per day of high-quality activities/programs. Children in elementary school should not be spending more than two hours of their leisure time on devices and should have a balance of other activities they engage with as well. As children get into the preteen and teen years, the focus should be on prioritizing non-screen-time activities and using devices in free time as opposed to constantly.”

Father busy looking at his phone next to his son on the couchGCShutter/Getty ImagesWhen parents are engrossed in something they are watching on their phone or other devices, they also may not realize that a child nearby may be paying attention to what’s happening in the background. This means they may be exposed to violent or mature content or fast-moving images that are overly stimulating for young brains. This can cause an increase in anxiety and sleep issues, as well as make it more difficult for kids to unwind and settle down when it’s time for bed.

Focus on quality time

There’s another thing to consider: The more time you spend looking at your electronics, the less time you can devote to giving your kids your full attention. And that’s something they really need. “A child’s cognitive, communication, social, and emotional development happens via their relationships with parents and other care providers,” says Beurkens. “When devices consistently get in the way of the quality relational experiences children need, their development can suffer. This doesn’t mean that parents should never use devices when a child is present. It does mean that parents need to be aware of how often they are fully engaged with their child without devices and make sure there is quality interaction and attention being provided.”

Obviously, exactly how involved a parent can or should be in their child’s daily life will vary depending on the age of the child. But letting your child know that they are your priority and will get your full attention when needed is always important. “This means secondhand screen time is an issue parents need to be aware of regardless of their child’s age,” says Beurkens. “In terms of brain development, the impact of excessive parental device use is probably more pronounced from infancy through early childhood, as this phase of development is where the consistent engagement with parents is most necessary for proper cognitive, communication, social, and emotional development.” While the issues change as kids get older, they still need to know they have your undivided attention, especially as they attempt to navigate new social and emotional challenges. Spend more quality time with your teen with these 23 activities they’ll actually love.

Establish reasonable limits

Secondhand screen time has only been getting attention fairly recently, so there are no concrete guidelines yet. “To my knowledge, no one has issued recommendations for secondhand screen time, although the general consensus among child-development experts is that parents/caregivers should prioritize focused engagement with the child over distraction with devices the majority of the time,” says Beurkens. “Children require engaged face-to-face interactions with parents and other trusted adults in order to support proper brain development. Excessive screen use by parents gets in the way of this and should be minimized whenever possible.”

Use your discretion and judgment to determine limits for your own gadget usage, just as you would for your children. Also, take cues from your kids. If they seem to be frustrated because they’re constantly trying to get your attention when you’re focused on electronics, that may be a red flag that you are overdoing it. Check out these habits that many parents of successful kids have in common.

Setting the right example

There’s also the matter of the confusing message you may be sending to your kids with a “do as I say, not as I do” approach. “We can tell kids that it’s important to curb their device use, but if their experience with parents from infancy on is watching them use devices frequently, they are much more likely to follow that model,” says Beurkens.

bearded father and two daugthers on sofa looking at devicesgolero/Getty ImagesImprove your relationship with your kids by evaluating whether you have these 11 bad parenting traits—and take the necessary measures to change your behavior.

This may not be easy

Managing a child’s use of electronics can take effort. But trying to cut down on your own screen time may be even more challenging. “For adults, this issue can be trickier because devices are often a necessary component of people’s work, as well as personal tasks and activities,” says Beurkens. “Being aware of whether time on devices is interfering with other important life activities is helpful. A good general rule of thumb is to ensure there are at least some periods of time during the day (and definitely at bedtime) when devices aren’t being used. That’s a helpful way to start establishing more balance.”

Actions to take now

While this may not be easy, it is worth the effort. And there are manageable steps you can take now to get started. “One of the simplest is establishing certain times and places where devices won’t be used,” says Beurkens. “For example, device-free mealtimes are important for many reasons, and this is an easy way to curb use. Other ideas include not using devices in the restroom, when having a conversation with someone, or when playing games with the kids. Turning off as many notifications as possible is also very helpful, as we have less of a tendency to constantly be checking our phones when our attention isn’t constantly being drawn to every ding or vibration.”

There are even ways that you can use technology to your advantage in this regard. “Using the screen time monitoring features on devices allow adults to become aware of how much time they are spending on devices and what activities they are engaging in,” says Beurkens. “There are many apps that people also find helpful. Qustodio is a great one for managing and monitoring children’s use of devices, and some parents find they benefit from using it on their devices, as well.”