Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Grandparents Worry About Grandchildren’s Excessive Screen Time

children using smartphones

Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,

In talking with other grandparents, we know we are not alone in worrying about our grandkids spending more time on their phones and other devices and less time socializing and studying. For example, our friend’s grandson lost his summer job because he was spending too much time on his phone at night and couldn’t get up in the morning to go to work.

To add fuel to the fire, gaming has become a huge attraction for these young minds, especially when there is a cash prize for the best players for some of the games. These kids seem to go into a hypnotic state and truly feel the more they play, the more likely they have a chance to win. It’s turning into a serious addiction.

We see the problem playing out with our own grandchildren with lots of bickering with their parents about screen time.

We read about one solution where high schoolers are now required to keep their devices in a magnetically sealed pouch during school hours. Although locking up the phones during the school day sounds like a good idea, I don’t feel it addresses the obsession part of the problem.

Any suggestions or ideas you can offer to address these problems will be greatly appreciated.

Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response

There is lots of information available to help parents set rules regarding their children’s screen time (1), (2), (3), as well as applications they can use to set and monitor screen access (1), (2), (3). Although many parents find themselves in ongoing battles with their kids about screen time, it is never too late to sit down as a family and put in place new rules and regulations. The above resources may help in this process.

However, as grandparents, your input, if any, concerning screen time and your grandchildren, needs to be shared with forethought and caution. If you come from a place of frustration, the parents may feel you are being judgmental and your advice will most likely be less than welcome. However, if you begin a conversation by saying you’ve been reading some articles (perhaps the ones as referenced above) that are helping you appreciate how difficult it can be to regulate screen time with youngsters in this day and age, your thoughts may be welcome.

So, depending on your relationships with the adult parents, if you are invited to share what you’re learning, then you may feel safe to proceed. However, if the parents let you know that they are not interested in your views and what you’ve learned, well then, you should probably back off.

Grandparent’s Ground Rules

That said, one of the few times you may exercise your authority is when the grandchildren are in your home. Then you may say, “Here are our rules regarding screen time,” and you state your one, two, or no more than three rules, e.g.,

(1) No devices allowed at the dinner table.

(2) We set time limits on usage.

(3) There will be no devices in bedrooms at night.

This last point is important, because, as pointed out in an article in The Atlantic, the blue light from screens suppresses melatonin, a hormone that helps with sleep timing and circadian rhythms [physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle]. It is advisable to discuss your rules with your grandchildren’s parents before acting on them.

Regarding your reference to the high school that locks up students’ cellphones during the school day, I appreciate and support that officials are trying to remove a known distraction to learning. However, as explained in a recent article in Education Week, there are pros and cons to such a ban.

Concerns About Screen Time Addiction

You raised a concern about digital addiction. The research on what constitutes digital addiction is mixed. For example, with regard to gamers [a gamer is a hobbyist or individual that enjoys playing various types of digital or online games], research cited in this article by Jamie Wiebe may alleviate some of that concern.

You raised a concern about digital addiction. The research on what constitutes digital addiction is mixed. For example, with regard to gamers [a gamer is a hobbyist or individual that enjoys playing various types of digital or online games], research cited in this article by Jamie Wiebe may alleviate some of that concern.

… Is gaming addiction “real”? The answer depends on who you ask — but the research indicates most gamers don’t need to worry about a possible dependency. There’s nothing wrong with a weekend-long binge … as you’re fitting in your other needs, too … The World Health Organization labels gaming addiction a mental health disorder, estimating 2–3% of gamers are officially “addicted.”

However, it is worth noting that this position of the World Health Organization is challenged by some as being too narrow. For example, a New York Times article by Ferris Jabr details gamers’ self-acknowledged addictions and the role societal and cultural factors play.

According to Mr. Wiebe, possible addiction … requires meeting five of the following criteria within one year:

  • Preoccupation or obsession with Internet games.
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not playing Internet games.
  • A build-up of tolerance — more time needs to be spent playing the games.
  • The person has tried to stop or curb playing Internet games, but has failed to do so.
  • The person has had a loss of interest in other life activities, such as hobbies.
  • A person has had continued overuse of Internet games even with the knowledge of how much they impact a person’s life.
  • The person lied to others about his or her Internet game usage.
  • The person uses Internet games to relieve anxiety or guilt — it’s a way to escape.
  • The person has lost or put at risk an opportunity or relationship because of Internet games.

So, although your grandchildren are most likely not truly addicted, your frustration with and concerns about excessive screen time are understandable. Only you can decide, based on the relationships you have with your grandchildren’s parents, if, and in what ways you might share your concerns.

I close by urging parents and grandparents alike to read this Washington Post article that summarizes the points you raise. I think it has the right balance between providing relevant information and possible steps that can be taken — many of which fall into the category of tough love — to help address concerns that smartphones and other devices are playing too much of a role in young peoples’ lives.


Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
E-mail queries to [email protected]

Dr. Rancourt’s most recent book is,
Its All About Relationships: New Ways to Make Them Healthy and Fulfilling, at Home and at Work

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