Emily Franks and son Caden talk via Skype with her husband, Michael, who is stationed in Afghanistan. Kids often use their screen time to communicate with relatives. (The Washington Post)

The debate about screen time is getting more complicated. As we spend more time each day in front of a screen, concern is growing over the effect it could be having on our brains — particularly the brains of our children.

Parents may be silently scolding themselves for giving their kids too much screen time, but the issue is more complicated than simply logging on to computers and other devices. Last week, the American Association of Pediatrics announced new guidance on how parents should think about screen time for their children. And on Monday, parent advisory group Common Sense Media released an in-depth look at media use among black and Latino teens, an even more complicated picture of the merits and dangers of screen time.

The group decided to commission the case studies after seeing the results of a census of teen media use the group ran last year. That report found that teens, on average, were using media in some form for nine hours each day. It also found that minority teens, particularly black and Latino teens, were spending significantly more time with media than their white contemporaries and the overall average.

It would be easy to draw some simple conclusions from that result about how socioeconomic factors may affect media use, said Common Sense research head Michael Robb. But Common Sense wanted to see if it could paint a more complex and personal picture, rather than using such a broad brush.

“Children’s experiences [are] so often discussed as if they are some monolithic group,” Robb said. “But different children use different media and for different reasons.”

To get an accurate handle on what teens in this target group are actually doing with media and why, Common Sense went to a teen and children’s after-school group in the Mid-Atlantic region and organized a gender-balanced pool of subjects who would represent a good mix of media users. Researchers interviewed these young people, along with their parents or guardians, and also frequently checked in with the subjects to see what they were doing at any given moment, and how they were feeling.

The study does not reveal the names of the 11 kids and teens in the case studies but does get an in-depth look at their media habits.

Some of the case studies showed troubling responses to media use. One boy said he gets upset with his mother when his devices are taken away; one girl sleeps with her phone. A 15-year-old girl admitted that she had sent a nude picture to a boy. Many of the subjects underestimate the time they spend on their devices, indicating that they don't have a good handle on how much media they're using. They also go to extreme lengths to get online: Two siblings said they wake up at 4 in the morning to use the WiFi when the network is not crowded. In a handful of interviews, study researchers said that some of the subjects were distracted or difficult to talk to while they were using devices — something likely familiar to any parent trying to get their child's attention.

Yet the young people in the study also used their phones for critical communication that brings them closer to their families. One 14-year-old girl who lived in a foster home told researchers who contacted her each day that she was using her phone to text with her birth parents and her grandparents. Her birth parents bought her a phone and an iPad to keep a digital connection with their daughter.

In other cases, video games or other puzzles were able to help subjects connect with their siblings and parents, or to fill in for extracurricular activities they couldn't otherwise do. And in most cases, parents had a strong influence on their kids' digital habits.

The findings are “extremely important,” said Mario Velasquez, senior adviser for innovation and strategic partnerships at the District's Latin American Youth Center. Velasquez, who attended a Monday presentation of the study on Capitol Hill, is trying to start a digital youth program at his center and said that the findings gave him vital information on the needs of the community he serves.

“We always believed that families were part of our target population, but yesterday we got some numbers and hard data to corroborate families' extreme importance to kids' tech use,” he said. 

Robb said he was surprised by the sheer variety of ways that teens interact with their screens and the reasons that they do so. One girl, he said, spent a lot of time on her phone because she lived in one room with the rest of her family, and using her phone was the only claim to privacy that she could stake in that situation.

Because the case studies are so personal, it’s difficult to draw major conclusions from them, Robb said. But he does hope that it adds more nuance to the picture that researchers are putting together about screen time.

There are some other universal themes that one can draw from these stories, said Common Sense Director Jim Steyer. “These case studies show how critical Internet access is to all children's success in the 21st century, practically, socially and academically,” he said. “Across the board, we see how valuable it is for kids and parents to use media together and to have parents engaged in their children's media habits.”