Children in the United States are spending more time in front of screens — watching television, movies, and using computers and iPhones, and androids — than ever before. They are spending much more time with these types of media than with books or in free play, and it is happening at younger and younger ages. Parents are not just “letting” their children watch but are often actively encouraging these forms of passive entertainment. TV, iPads, and iPhones are always available babysitters, so it’s no wonder parents sometimes rely on screens to keep kids busy while grown-ups take care of household chores, bills, or catch up on their emails, or using screens themselves.
I as a Chaplain and a counselor must ask, “How much screen time is too much?”. Parents bring their children to me asking, “why is my child so angry?” Or “Why does he/she ignore me when I’m talking to them?” And my personal favorite “Why, does my child argue with me when I ask them to do their homework, or chores?”
All of which are great questions, however, the answer is not often something they or you will agree with. It’s because they are addicted to screens and they feel entitled. Have you ever been on your computer, or smart phone only to find your child trying to see what your doing on it? Our Children are addicted to screens!!
One new study finds that time spent on screens is linked to not-so-great shifts in brain connectivity, while reading is linked to more beneficial changes. The researchers, from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, had families rate how much time their kids spent on screens (smartphones, tablets, computers, and TV) and how much time they spent reading actual books. The children’s brains were scanned, to assess how regions involved in language were connected, and it turned out that screen time was linked to poorer connectivity in areas that govern language and cognitive control. Reading, on the other hand, was linked to better connectivity in these regions.
Another recent study found that the brain chemistry of kids who fell into the category of smartphone or Internet addiction was different from that of non-addicted kids. In particular, changes were seen in the reward circuits of the brain, in the ratio of the neurotransmitter GABA to other neurotransmitters. (Interestingly, these changes generally reversed when the teens went through cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for their addiction.) And other research has reported that cells in one of the reward areas of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, are activated when participants view Instagram pictures with more “likes," which again suggests that social media use can tap into addiction pathways.
But what may be even more important than looking at the brain is looking at the behavior and the psychology of kids who use screens. Researcher Jean Twenge’s famous work has shown strong links between time spent on screens and depression and suicidality in teens. A recent study of hers reported that teens who spent more time on screens in the form of social media, internet, texting, and gaming thought about suicide a lot more than kids who didn’t: about 48% of those who spent five or more hours a day on their phones had thought about suicide or made plans for it, while 28% of the teens who spent only one hour per day on their phones. In fact, teens who spent more time doing sports, homework, socializing with friends in real life, and going to church had a lower risk for both depression and suicide.
Research shows that, for children under 3, it’s not just what’s on the screen that matters but that it’s on at all. Even if the TV is simply “on” in the room where the child is playing, there are negative effects. For example, a study found that when an adult TV program was on in the room where babies or toddlers were playing, the children didn’t play as intently or if when the TV was off. “Background TV” also affects how a child interacts with his or her parents. When the TV is on, parents tend to be more distracted and less attuned to their children and their needs, reducing the quality of the interaction. Young children are better able to complete complex and sophisticated tasks when they work with an adult or older child. When parents are attentive, children are also more likely to engage in independent goal-oriented play, higher quality play, and more focused play.
So, if play is the real teacher and the best babysitter, how do we limit children’s exposure when TVs, iPads, and smartphones are everywhere? The average household has 3 television sets, and over 40% of children have one in their bedroom by the time they’re 6 years old! TVs are present and watched in most child care centers, too. Whether it’s home-based child care or a center-based child care setting, children often watch TV as part of their daily routine. It is estimated that children watch 2-3 hours of TV in home-based child care settings per day and about 1.5 in center-based child care settings.
Some parents and early childhood settings are replacing televisions with computers. While computers can be terrific teaching tools, too much time in front of a computer can lead to some of the same problems as too much time watching TV, such as obesity. According to one study, children ages 4 to 7 who were overweight were able to become more physically active by parents’ cutting their screen time in half, including computer use.
Right about now you’re asking, “Ok, but what is a parent supposed to do?”
“I’m glad you asked”.
Very young children have nothing to gain and lots to lose from spending time in front of screens, instead of playing and interacting with friends and loved ones. Even when the TV is simply on in the background, infants and toddlers lose out. For older children (two and up), the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents limit screen time to 1-2 hours a day, and keep televisions in common areas — never in a child’s bedroom. TiVo, DVRs and other devices are terrific tools for parents, allowing them to record shows for children that can be seen by them at an hour that’s right for your family’s sleep schedule and without commercials!
Here are some ways you can limit screen exposure and increase interactive play:
- Get your toddlers and pre-school age children involved in household chores and let it be a learning opportunity. You can get them small brooms so they can sweep one part of the room while you sweep another, and you can teach them the names and colors of vegetables while you are cooking.
- Make it a point to eat dinner together and ask your child about his or her day. If it is a very young child, you can remind him of all the things he did that day, asking a few simple questions, such as what he liked best about the day.
- If you really need your child to be occupied during an important call or while you complete a task and you don’t think that she will be able to play long enough by herself, let her listen to pre-recorded stories on a tape or CD. You can buy these but better yet, record yourself telling or reading your child’s favorite stories. This way your child will have you, even when you are not available or are away on a trip. Listening to stories, as opposed to watching them on TV or on a computer, helps children develop listening skills.
- When you want to watch an adult show, record it and watch it after your child goes to sleep.
- If your child is going to watch something, watch with her and comment or ask questions about what you are watching. You can make passive TV viewing active this way.
- Provide your young child with simple toys and household objects that aren’t automated (if the toy needs batteries, save it for when the child is older). The more the toy does, the less your child will do. (Remember the “personalized educational curriculum”!)