Years ago a number of pediatricians and I spoke about kids getting heavier. After years of observing this trend, research showed that indeed there was an “obesity epidemic”as if we needed research to prove that. Also years ago, I met with a number of child psychiatrists at a meeting and we discussed our respective literature to see if we had seen anything written about electronic media driving kids toward ADHD, anxiety, and depression. At the time we had not seen any such research even though we all felt that to be true. Now we have the research and the support and new guidelines.
Missed during the end of this raucous election cycle is the recent recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics for screen time for kids of all ages. The recommendations are more strict than before based on some scary information. There is little doubt that parents are not even close regarding the use of screens in rearing their children. And I find it an uphill battle whenever I talk about it. But there are important things to recognize before you lay your child in front of your phone or ipad.
First it is very important to think about our children’s brains and how they develop. Interaction with live three dimensional people is critical at any age even teenagers. Babies learn to smile in response to faces. Speech is taught by speaking and reading to children. Teenagers learn to read emotion in faces by the end of high school only through seeing actual faces! Children learn right, wrong, sorrow, joy, disappointment and resilience through personal experiences. Nobody can deny any of these statements. Yet we work against these important developmental stages through the overuse of screens – and yes they are being overused by everyone including parents!
Starting with early childhood, parents with good intentions use electronics to try to teach their children. Many products have come out to support this parental desire. One problem exists with these products and TV shows. Under age two, there is no evidence that supports the notion that electronic games or TV shows help children under two develop. In fact, it is clear that young kids can operate an ipad, or sing along with a show theme, or even learn a word. However, it is not clear if this improves a child’s ability to interact. Even new words learned from a device may not be learned enough to use that word in their world. Ability to use an ipad is not a sign of improved intelligence at 20 months of age! This is why the AAP recommends no screens for children under 2.
Over age two, children may derive some benefit from educational TV, and educational computer programs. But that benefit is only realized if parents are involved with those shows and programs in order to reinforce the learning through ( you guessed it ) interaction. When parents reinforce the learning from a program by explaining what the child saw, and using what they learned, children actually learn the material. Without the follow through with interaction, children learn less of the material. Kids who learn through electronics and interaction together receive a benefit that can be recognized in kindergarten and first grade. Aside from that narrow perspective, TV shows and computer games have no benefit and can have detrimental effects. One of the key effects is teaching distractability and disturbing their ability to follow instructions. Both of those things are problems for school. So the recommendation from the AAP is very limited ( 1 hour a day ) use of screen time for kids 2 to 5 years old and that screen time should be of educational content, and be supervised and reinforced by parents in order to be beneficial.
Now to the real fly in the soup. Parents that I know believe that school age and teenager screen use has gotten out of control. The American Academy of Pediatrics would agree. Being realistic, even schools are putting homework onto ipads and computer systems. So some screen time may be necessary. Some screen time is important to young adults in order to stay connected with friends. But there are extremes of use that are not good. We see more obesity that is tied to screen use. Our kids are sleeping less and are more tired. Social isolation is increasing with screen use. We even have a new psychiatric diagnosis called Internet Gaming Disorder where children and teens are addicted to gaming! And that is not all, we have more ADHD, anxiety, and depression that can be associated with screen overuse. I am convinced that fewer boys are going to college because of their screen use. The ratio of boys to girls in college has been steadily increasing in favor of girls for years and the boys that are going to college have lower scores than boys did in the past. We have not even talked about the antisocial behavior that is taught in games and online. Could our boys be taught attitudes about women in the games they play or sites they visit online? You bet! And should I even mention sexting? Or sex predators? If you want more information about how boys are affected by screen time among other issues check out the documentary “The Mask You Live In” on Netflix.
Screens are a new necessity in our lives. Parents can hardly put them down so how can we expect kids to? But we all need to put the screens down more. Every home should have some basic rules in place. Limit the time for non academic screen use. Turn off televisions when not in use. Avoid using media to calm your child. Monitor the content of your child’s TV and screen viewing. Keep TVs and other screens out of bedrooms. No screens during meals one hour before bed. Develop your own Family Media Plan by checking out www.healthy children.org/MediaUsePlan . Children at all ages need to have their faces seeing other faces and interacting in order to develop and learn normally. This is so important and we are seeing the effects! Screen time is mean time because it is bad for the development of our children. So please try and improve on your media use plans today. Thank you!