Technology is great, isn’t it? It’s what has advanced our society over time. A long time. But, what if technology is actually doing more harm than good when it comes to our children?
I recently read an article written by Sue Palmer, who has been studying the impacts of technology on children for over a decade. She has published over 200 books, TV programs, and software packages for teachers and children. Palmer first wrote about and warned of the dangers of too much screen-time having a negative impact on our children’s mental and physical health 10 years ago. That’s when TV and violent video games were a bigger focus than iPads and other handheld screens. I was shocked and frightened by what I read, so I want to share it with you.
“When it comes to spending a childhood in front of a screen, this generation are like lab rats. The long-term impact is not known.”
What's in this post?
- 1 “When it comes to spending a childhood in front of a screen, this generation are like lab rats. The long-term impact is not known.”
- 1.1 Here’s what we do know:
- 1.2 “The boom in iPads and smartphones has coincided with further deterioration in the physical and mental health of children of all ages.”
- 1.3 Techno-Tots
- 1.4 Long-term damages of too much screen time
- 1.5 “A whole generation could grow up WITHOUT the mental ability to create their own fun, devise their own games and enjoy real friendships- all because of endless screen time.”
- 1.6 “Real play is driven by an innate desire to understand how the world works, [so] it provides the foundation for academic learning.”
- 1.7 “Real play develops initiative, problem-solving skills and many other positive traits, such as a can-do attitude, perseverance and emotional resilience.”
- 1.8 The Problem with Screens
- 2 “If the next generation is to grow up bright, balanced and healthy enough to use technology wisely, parents need to take action.”
WHAT? Lab rats!!? I don’t know about you, but I do NOT want my children to be the subject of some “experiment”, or a lab rat. But, she has a good point- technology hasn’t been around long enough for us to fully know the long term effects of it. Many of us are weary of new medicines and other medical advances when they first come out, or people often say not to buy the first model year of a new vehicle so that the manufacturer can fix all the defects, so why are we so quick to embrace new technology without giving it much thought?
Here’s what we do know:
- A sedentary lifestyle for children leads to poor coordination. Experts warned of this even before the iPad came out in 2010, as 80% of children were going to school with poor coordination (falling out of chairs, not able to catch a ball well, tripping, etc.).
- There’s been a four-fold increase in less than a decade in prescriptions for Ritalin, which is a drug used to treat attention deficit and hyperactivity (ADD/ADHD). It’s not just because it’s being “diagnosed” more…
- Sleep disorders, obesity, aggression, poor social skills, depression, and academic under-achievement are all linked to excessive screen-time.
- A sedentary lifestyle can negatively impact a child’s vision development.
“The boom in iPads and smartphones has coincided with further deterioration in the physical and mental health of children of all ages.”
- A “techno tot” is a toddler who has a tablet/small screen that has become a source of comfort for them, similar to a security or comfort blanket. So, if your child is calmed by a tablet or other screen, he/she is a techno tot.
- 1 in every 10 children under the age of 4 years old is put to bed with a tablet to play with as they fall asleep.
- 33% of children under 3 years old have their own tablets.
- Steve Jobs, the Co-Founder of Apple, may have made a fortune off of them, but he did not let his own children have iPads.
Long-term damages of too much screen time
Palmer argues that “real play is a biological necessity” and that it’s “as vital for healthy development as food or sleep.” The brain is rapidly developing when children are young, so if children aren’t having authentic experiences, and seeing real life stuff in person, not on a screen, they’re missing out on developing the part of the brain that helps with social and imaginative responses. If those aren’t developed in childhood, it’s hard to develop them later in life. So, by trying to provide our children with “everything,” we might actually be harming their development when we give them screens.
“A whole generation could grow up WITHOUT the mental ability to create their own fun, devise their own games and enjoy real friendships- all because of endless screen time.”
That’s scary! But, it makes sense. Today’s children aren’t out running around, making forts, climbing trees, riding bikes until the streetlights come on, playing ball just for fun, and so on. They’re not out camping or baking in the kitchen. And, heaven forbid that they help with chores or other household tasks! Those are all examples of important activities for developing physical skills.
“Real play is driven by an innate desire to understand how the world works, [so] it provides the foundation for academic learning.”
If they’re watching something on a screen or playing a game with a set of rules and built in parameters, they’re not fully using their imagination and being creative like they would be if they were doing pretend play. When children are being entertained by a screen instead of interacting and playing with others, they are missing out on the social interaction of playing with someone else, learning how to get along with others, developing empathy, and seeing how someone else does something. Those are hard skills to teach using a device and hard skills to develop later.
“Real play develops initiative, problem-solving skills and many other positive traits, such as a can-do attitude, perseverance and emotional resilience.”
Screen time isn’t bad only because it has negative connections to things like attention disorders, but because it also prevents infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and children from doing other activities that are vital for developing healthy bodies and brains. For example, infants and toddlers like to interact with others, but if they get instant gratification from a screen, they stop showing as much interest in people and things in the real world. As much as technology and screen time has become an increasing part of our world, we still need to be able to live in the real world. And, if we want our future generations to be able to function, respond to crisis, make laws, and so on, we need them to be able to interact with others because certainly we don’t expect all jobs to be replaced by technology.
The Problem with Screens
- Instant rewards from a screen decrease the desire for children to “bother with play that demands physical, social and cognitive effort.” So, they miss out on development opportunities. When things get tough, they’re not sure what to do because they’ve never had to persevere or put forth a lot of effort.
- The pleasure small children get from making something happen on a screen mimics the same pleasure they’d get from something fun or comforting in the real world, such as splashing water or snuggles. So, they learn to get their happiness from a device, a device that they control, and one that reacts and responds immediately. They don’t have to wait their turn or deal with reactions they weren’t expecting.
- It doesn’t take long to get a screen to do something, so children get used to instant gratification, which shortens the amount of time they pay attention to something.
- “Staring at screens puts their brains into suspended animation.” That’s not exactly good for learning how to read (or do anything else). And, quite frankly, it sounds pretty scary. It almost sounds like they would be easier to manipulate and control, which is NOT something I want for my children.
- When children become used to images and stuff on a screen moving, making noises, and so on, printed words and pictures in a book seem boring, interfering with learning to read. If we can read, we can teach ourselves anything. If children struggle with reading, they’re less apt to enjoy it, and less apt to try. This impacts their future learning across all subject areas and in most aspects of life.
- Children who use screens excessively have failed opportunities to develop resilience. Screen time doesn’t provide many opportunities to learn from mistakes or cope with challenges. How will that impact children down the road? In school when something is hard for them? At soccer practice or music class? When they get their first job?
- Cyber-bullying and (online) social networking put a lot of pressure on children to keep up with others, do stuff they’re not ready for, and so on. This leads to an increase in mental health problems, such as depression and low self-esteem.
“If the next generation is to grow up bright, balanced and healthy enough to use technology wisely, parents need to take action.”
What Parents Can Do
- Limit screen time.
- The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 1 hour a day for children ages 2-5 of high quality programming.
- Watch or otherwise partake in the screen time with your child to help with understanding. Find out more about the APA’s recommendations here.
- Spend time together as a family. Only use your phone for pictures or maps.
- Make mealtimes screen-free. Put all phones and other devices somewhere else. Turn the TV off or to a music channel.
- Give your children time to play, including time to play outside.
- Balance your children’s screen time with activities that exercise their bodies and their eyes (vision), such as playing ball. Playing catch, ping-pong, frisbee, soccer, football, and so on will help them because they see and interact with an object moving in real space. For more about what you can do to help your child’s vision, check out this article.
- If your child is addicted to screen time or very accustomed to it, gradually cut back.
- Let them watch one episode, then have them do something active. Gradually cut back on the number of episodes they watch a day, or the amount of time they spend playing games (or whatever they do on the screen).
- Plan ahead. Instead of using a screen to distract your child or keep him/her occupied, bring a game or other activity. Let your child know ahead of time that their screen won’t be available, but that you’ve brought a bunch of fun activities they can do instead.
- Magnadoodle, Water Wow, play dough, coloring books or drawing, books, word searches, mazes, lacing activities, Legos/building blocks, and card games are all examples of activities that are easy to transport. You could also play games like, “I spy”, hangman, tic-tac-toe, Go fish…
- Visit the library. Check out books instead of using a tablet for reading books.
But, technology is the way things are these days. Not allowing my child to use screens will hinder them in the future!
No. No, it won’t. Technology develops so rapidly that any IT skills that your child learns before they’re 7-8 years old will be outdated by the time they reach their teens. Again. Just like with food and dieting, moderation is key. Too much of something is never good. The same thing applies to screen time. It’s possible to help them learn keyboarding skills, for example, without letting them spend the majority of their day on a screen.
Using screens as a babysitter for hours on end will hinder children. You can’t replace self-confidence, emotional intelligence, resilience, social skills, creative thinking, problem-solving skills, and good attention spans with anything else. These are vital to having a well-rounded child who is prepared for kindergarten and beyond. Too much technology gets in the way of that. And, we may not know the full extent of it, as our children are the lab rats for future generations. So, please, limit screen time for your children. For more about the American Pediatric Association’s recommendations, visit their site.
Do you want to reduce your child’s screen time, but you’re not sure where to start?
Cutting back or eliminating screen time won’t be easy. It’ll be a lifestyle change for you and your child(ren), but it’ll be worth it.
- Start slowly. Give your child and yourself time to make the change.
- Have other activities in place. You have to replace the TV time with something, right? Be prepared and have fun stuff set out.
- Make one change each week until you reach your goal. Talk to your child, spouse, and any other family members about your goal and your reasons behind it. From what I’ve read, cutting back screen time isn’t the easiest thing to do for most kids, but once it’s been eliminated or drastically reduced, most parents say they’re happier and their children are happier.
- Be the example. Reduce your own screen time.
- If you’re like most adults, you check your phone often, every time it dings or makes a noise, for the time, to see if someone replied to your email, commented on your post, or liked what you shared, and probably without realizing you’re doing it. Make it a point to set down your phone and not check it. Checking it on the hour or half hour, depending on how frequently you use your phone, might be a good starting point. Then, gradually increase the time your phone is down instead of in your hand.
- Instead of using your phone, play with your kids. Or, let them see you doing one of your hobbies.
- Use a real camera instead of your phone’s camera so that you’re not tempted to check other apps.
- If the TV is always on in your house, turn it off. Or turn it to a music channel so that you still have noise, but here’s not much to watch. You could also go play in another room. A change of scenery might help with breaking the screen time habit for your and your child(ren).
- Limit TV viewing time (and other screen time). For example, if your children usually watch a few hours of TV in the morning, tell them that they’re only going to watch 3 episodes instead of 4, and after the 3rd episode, you’re going to go ___. Then, reduce it down to two episodes, and so on. Or, set a timer for screen/TV time. Tell your child that he/she has X minutes of screen time, and when the timer goes off, it means he/she has 5 minutes left before it’s time to turn off the device. When the timer goes off, reset it for 5 minutes. Then, help your child put the device away or turn off the TV (or put the screen away for your child). I’ve also heard of parents not charging devices so that the batteries run out and then the charger is missing or the iPad is broken, or whatever trick they want to use so that their child can’t use the device.
- Turn the TV off during mealtimes. Keep phones and other handheld devices off of the dinner table (or where ever you eat). Talk to one another instead.
- Change your routine. If your child usually watches a lot of TV or uses a screen in the afternoon, go outside instead. Or host a play date, go to the park, play a game, etc. It might be easier to forgo the screen time if your routine is totally changed, instead of sitting in the living room with your child whining about the TV being off.
- Get more involved with your child’s life, or involve them in yours. Yes, it’s a LOT easier to get stuff done if you hand your child a device or plop them down in front of the TV or another screen. But, it’s not as beneficial to them. Ask them to help you prep dinner. Tell them what you need them to do. Have them sort out all the socks if you’re doing laundry. Or, put the household tasks aside if you can and play with your children. Notice what they like to do, what seems to be challenging, which toys aren’t being played with, etc. Listen to their stories. Ask questions. Make observations. Have fun!
- You could also move or remove your TV or other screens completely. Cutting your cable back, or out completely is another option. It’s boring to “watch” TV if there’s nothing on it, and it’s impossible to watch it if it’s not there anymore. Our TV has only been in our living room for a few months now, as we didn’t want our children focused on it, and we didn’t want to be tempted to use it. But, it’s a better use of space to have it in the living room, so we’ve moved it back. IF it’s on during the day, while the children are awake, it’s on the music channel. If not, it’s off unless Buddy Boy is napping and Sweet Pea is watching Spanish, which she does a few times a week for 20-30 minutes.
- Don’t take handheld screens along on car rides (or use them only on long drives) and limit the use of any built in DVD players or other screens in your vehicle. Talk about your surroundings, where you’re going, etc.
- TVs and other screens shouldn’t be in bedrooms. It’s harder to monitor kids’ use of TVs, computers, iPads, etc when they’re using them in their rooms, especially behind closed doors. Make it a household rule that screens need to be used in common areas of your house, or with adult supervision.
Related post: How to Lower the Risk of a Speech Delay in Children
How much screen time do you children get? Why?
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