Technology has been woven into the very fabric of our daily lives, leaving us bombarded by the screens of the many devices with which we interact. For example, the other day I was sitting with my family at lunch when I looked up from my meal and noticed that everyone, including my five-year-old nephew, was staring at a screen. I am not alone in the concern that human interaction should not be superseded by technology screens. Studies have shown that excessive screen time, or time spent playing video games, watching TV/DVDs, or on computers/tablets/smartphones has harmful effects on our children’s development. Spoiler alert, it’s not just our children’s excessive use of media that’s the problem!
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children older than two be limited to 2 hours or less of screen time daily while those younger than two should not be exposed to electronic media at all. A review of associated research found that screen time in excess of these guidelines placed children at risk for decreased physical strength, neck, back and headaches, poorer diet and obesity, sleep disturbances, language delay in toddlers, decreased school readiness and performance, increased emotional reactivity and aggression, and an increased risk of developing mental health problems. Some specific programs have been shown to positively impact the learning of vocabulary, letters, and numbers, but that most claims of developmental benefit are not supported by evidence.
The answer as to why this happens lies behind the very way that young children learn and develop and what they are deprived of with excessive screen time. Child development is relational: It hinges on the interaction and communication between adults and the infant or toddler for development of language. Studies have shown that young children’s brains do not receive the same stimulation from electronic means and, as a result, effective social learning does not occur. The relationship to obesity, diet, and strength should be more obvious. The more time in front of the screens, especially with high-fat snack foods, the less physical activity occurs to build muscle and burn fat. Sleep disturbances are associated with the lighting of the screen and are worsened by use of electronics too close to bedtime or having them in the bedroom.
Some of these risks are easily translated to the adult population, such as increased time spent obsessing over a screen means less time focusing on work, driving (was that a speed bump or a pedestrian?), exercising, or even interacting with our families. My description of lunch above is what is called “continuous partial inattention” where adults are present with children, yet are not present on an emotional or attention-providing level. What’s worse is adults often become irritable when interrupted while using their phones, creating tension between child and parent or even miscommunicating to the child that they are less important than the phone or other media. This behavior, often seen with addiction, is attributed to the release of dopamine in response to phone notifications. Studies have shown that phone notifications trigger dopamine release in much the same way that drug and alcohol trigger dopamine release.
The important message is that both parents and children are spending too much time focused on a screen and not enough time interacting with each other. Our children require our attention and interaction for appropriate development and learning.
We should set aside time with family where no phones are accessible so we can focus on the people physically present with us. Meal times are an excellent time for this. Children should be encouraged to engage in other activities for entertainment such as reading, creative play, physical activities such as sports, or other hobbies based on interest. When children are viewing media, co-viewing by parents is an excellent way to increase learning opportunities by interacting with the child in the educational program.
Use of electronic media should be restricted shortly before bedtime. Healthy limits on screen time is one key to a brighter future for our families.