By Jeff Grogan
It seems like everyone in the world has a smartphone these days, and kids are adopting technology faster than we can share it with them. Studies show that with this increase in availability, children and adults alike spend vastly more time in front of a screen than they did 10 or even five years ago. But are screens really the harbingers of eye strain and attention deficit everyone claims they are?
Negative effects of screen time
Many studies have compiled brain scans of internet-addicted patients and compared them to their non-addicted peers to determine what effects screen time might have on developing brains. Scientists discovered the following characteristics of screen-addicted brains:
- Loss or shrinkage of gray matter, particularly in the frontal lobe and striatum, associated with decision-making and empathy, respectively
- Thinner cortex tissue, which has been correlated with lower cognitive ability
- Impaired dopamine function similar to scans of drug addicted patients
In addition, overexposure to advertisements, particularly food, can increase children’s risk of developing obesity. Screen time is always less physically stimulating than physical activity, and kids tend to spend nearly twice as much time on screens than playing outside.
Though startling, these results are worst-case scenarios and only occur due to long-term, dramatic lifestyle changes that revolve around technology, gaming, and internet use. It does not mean every screen will deteriorate your brain tissue, but it does mean we must be careful about how often we use screens and what we use them for.
Psychological and developmental effects
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) outlines a few key correlations between increased screen time and developmental challenges in young children. However, they point out that “content is crucial: experimental evidence shows that switching from violent content to educational/prosocial content results in significant improvement in behavioral symptoms.” That said, their studies have found screen use in early childhood puts kids at risk for:
- Cognitive, language, and social delays in development
- Decreases in parent-child interactions
- Poor executive functioning in preschoolers
In addition, parents’ technology use can dramatically impact their young ones’ development. Preliminary research has revealed infants show distress when they seek their mother’s attention but find her distracted by a device.
Excessive use of technology for the wrong reasons can impair vital relationships, but only when these tools are misused or misunderstood.
Benefits associated with screen time
Some studies point out that not all media is equal. For example, spending five hours sitting in front of the TV watching violent crime shows is different than watching a nature documentary, then playing a movement game (a la Wii Fit), interspersed with texting your friends. The latter example is a more blended, real-life scenario that many studies have failed to account for.
In addition, screens are being used in classrooms around the world to benefit learning. Computer programs and devices have been developed to help kids with specific learning disabilities master content using the style of communication they understand. Increasing the availability and quality of these assistive technologies will allow them to help children thrive no matter their circumstances.
So how much screen time should my child have per day?
Let’s start with some basic guidelines. Research agrees that parents shouldn’t let their kids use screens before they reach 2 years old. Between the ages of 2 and 5, the AAP recommends limiting use of non-educational screen time to under an hour per day.
Beyond age 5, it’s up to parents whether they allow their children full access to digital technologies. Being a more informed parent and screen user may help you decide how much is too much screen time, and which content will cause more harm than help.
Ways to limit screen time
You have a powerful influence over your children as a parent. If your kids always see you distracted by your phone or buried in your laptop, they will mimic your behavior. Choose to limit your own screen time as you also ask your children to. You can also take specific steps to reduce the noise and screen time in your house:
- Don’t leave the TV on as “background noise”
- Limit the number of screens available in your child’s room
- Leave the TV off during dinner or while doing homework
- Decide what you want to watch before turning the TV on, and avoid surfing the channels after you’ve seen your shows
Limiting non-educational screen time may be hard for your kids to adjust to at first, but they have a better chance at developing strong minds and healthy bodies if you make that choice.
Jeff Grogan is a professional freelance writer and editor. He supports Bold Idea because he believes in the unifying, empowering effect programming can have on students. Bold Idea inspires him to work graciously and meet practical needs with the skills he has.