There’s no doubt about it. Technology is a wonderful thing. Kids can text parents when they are ready to be picked up from school, play and learn on iPads during long waits at the doctor’s office, and extended families can see each other while chatting on Skype. But is it all coming at a cost far greater than the sticker price?
In the span of one generation, childhood has been completely redefined. Classrooms have been replaced by computer labs, outdoor recesses with virtual Smartboard adventures, and after school antics in the backyard by video games on the couch. Well, before you resign yourself to the inevitable – kids who can’t tear themselves away from the screen – consider the following.
Susan Brown, assistant director at Commonwealth Parenting and child development expert, says she is completely convinced that limiting children’s screen time is crucial to our kids’ happiness and success. Working with approximately a hundred families a year, for a variety of different reasons, she always begins by asking, How much time does your child spend with screens? Brown claims most parents reply, Too much, probably! Or in other words, Brown clarifies, about two to four hours per day. She recommends no screen time during the week and limited time on weekends. While families are hesitant at first, Brown says they all eventually admit what a change it has made in the family.
According to Jane M. Healy, author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds – for Better and Worse, screen time shortchanges our children, as it draws them away from other developmentally important activities like reading, hobbies, and creative play. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) recommends no screen time before the age of two, and less than one hour of screen time For older, school-aged children. That’s television, computer, and mobile device combined – per day.
Most parents ignore this recommendation, believing that technology offers some kind of edu-tainment. When in fact, Healy sites an assortment of negative impacts – such as visual, postural, and skeletal problems – as well as children picking up bad habits of mind – such as impulsivity, trial-and-error guessing instead of thoughtful problem-solving, and expectations of overly easy pleasure. According to Julian Sefton-Green and David Buckingham, researchers at the University of London, “Parents tend to greatly overestimate the power of computer hardware to help their youngsters’ learning and ‘secure their educational future.’” This perceived positive connection to learning is why Brown, who has one adult son, says, “This technology must not drive us. We [parents] must take control.”
Parents aren’t the only ones falling victim to these incorrect assumptions. Failure to Connect explains, “School districts are lining up to spend scarce education dollars on equipment that stands a good chance of being outdated In two or three years. These funds, as well as the considerable space needed for the computers, are often drawn from more developmentally important areas, such as physical education, art, music, drama, traditional library resources, and textbook purchases.”
So before you trade in puzzles for pixels, ponder this. Thanks to hand held devices, prevalent in every age group, children have access to a plethora of educational materials. And on the other hand, they also can download, view, play, and listen to violent and sexual material any time of day or night, often from the privacy of their own rooms, and with little supervision from their parents. The AAP reports, “Children and teenagers spend more time engaged in various media than they do in any other activity except sleeping.”
It’s not surprising, really, when you consider how easy we’ve made it for them to stay plugged in. The mini-van’s built in DVD player is the perfect example. Says Brown, “We have this notion that kids shouldn’t be bored.” Even short trips to the store are an Opportunity to pop in a DVD or catch an episode of Doc McStuffins. This in itself impacts child development in ways we can’t fully comprehend yet, as evidence suggests downtime is when most creative individuals generate their best ideas.
The fact of the matter is, the more screen time children have access to, the more likely they will be exposed to inappropriate content. For example, the AAP claims, “The average American adolescent will view nearly 14,000 sexual references per year, yet only 165 of these references deal with birth control, self-control, abstinence, or the risk of pregnancy or STDs.” Furthermore, the Kaiser Family Foundation reports, “The average child who watches two hours of cartoons a day may see nearly 10,000 violent incidents each year.”
Brown believes men and boys are particularly at risk for addiction to screens, as they are drawn to violence. According to the International Society for Research on Aggression, “Over the past fifty years, a large number of studies conducted around the world have shown that watching violent television, watching violent films, or playing violent video games increases the likelihood for aggressive behavior. This is true across studies using different methods, coming from different countries, and covering different time periods.” Why? Researchers believe media violence consumption triggers aggressive thoughts or feelings viewers are already feeling.
Video games, in particular, fall under fire because of the interactive experience. The Center for Successful Parenting clarifies that a child playing Mortal Kombat “is not merely a spectator, he or she employs some type of input device [often a simulated firearm] to kill targets.” The experience is so realistic the US Military capitalizes on the advances in video games in order to virtually train Its soldiers in a cost-effective manner. Yet close to 140 million Americans played video or computer games in 2010, which is a rise of 241 percent since 2008.
Why do people find it so hard to believe media violence consumption that stems from excessive screen time is harmful? According to the aggression research group, “[People] mistakenly think that media violence effects must be immediate and severe (e.g., playing a violent video game and then immediately shooting someone) or else they are nonexistent. In truth, media violence effects usually take less dramatic and instantaneous forms (e.g., a child being more defiant and disrespectful with increased media violence exposure; or an adult being less helpful to others).”
A multi-billion dollar advertising industry is built on the assumption that we’ll buy what they’re selling if they pitch it to us the right way. The fact that sexually explicit material is still somewhat limited during the family viewing hour (evenings from eight to nine) shows that our society believes overly sexual media content adversely affects our children. As parents, we must abandon our reluctance to admit the negative results of excessive media exposure.
“Parents hold all the cards but feel helpless.” Brown explains, adding that just because something has become normalized that doesn’t make it right. “Kids need parents to stand up and say enough.”
The parent educator concludes, “No parent will ever regret minimizing screen time. No parent is ever going to look back and say, ‘I wish I let my kids watch more screens.’”
It’s not too late to stop the media madness:
1. Avoid screen time completely for children under two years old.
2. Limit screen time to one hour daily for school-aged children.
3. Schedule no screen hours for your child and yourself.
4. Create a common charging station and require hand held devices to be docked by a certain time each evening.
5. Know what your kids are watching and playing. Utilize sites like CommonSenseMedia.org if you don’t have time to preview movies, apps, and video games.
6. Discuss media content to prevent desensitization to violence and sexualization.
7. Remember, just because children like something, it doesn’t mean it is good for them.
8. Susan Brown of Commonwealth Parenting advises parents to model decision-making. “If you start watching something with your children that ends up taking you into uncomfortable territory, turn it off or leave the theater,” says Brown. “Doing this shows your child that just because you start down a road doesn’t mean you can’t make another choice.”