The most recent available data, vetted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, shows children between 2 and 12 spend 4.5 hours per day in front of screens (using their phones, looking into I devices and Pads, watching movies, playing videogames). In U.S. homes with children under 9, 98% have mobile devices. In the majority of these homes parents and other adults hand children their Smart Phones to play on or to use for educational and other purposes. In homes with children 9 and older, most children have their own phones. Is this a safe practice?
Gail and I have a favorite restaurant we eat at a couple times a month. We’ve gotten to know the family that runs it and enjoy chatting with them and their children who are between six and nine-years-old. These kids sit for hours in front of their Smart Phones and I Pads. Armed with research that warns against this practice, I’ve avoided saying anything to the parents. It is hardly my place.
But a couple months ago, Gail, who is also very concerned, brought a copy of Saving Our Sons as a gift, and then more recently, The Minds of Girls. The couple had expressed interest in my books since they have children of both genders. “There are chapters on computers, video games, smartphones, and screen-time,” we hinted.
Were we wrong to hint? Did we overstep? Fortunately, the parents were not offended. In fact, a few weeks after receiving Saving Our Sons, then this last week, after reading the chapter in The Minds of Girls, the parents asked to talk about the brain research. We discussed the fact that screen time can turn into attention problems and other cognitive and academic issues; depression, anxiety, even suicide; problems with sleep and eating; obesity and physiological health issues.
Because most devices now allow access to the Internet, moral and character development of our children are at stake. The couple agreed first with this point then worked backward to the others. They had already seen their children’s behavioral expectations changing. “Arturo sits still when he is watching the screen,” his mom said, “but any other time, he just can’t sit still. His teachers are sending him to the principal a lot.” Dad said, “Katrina spends a lot of time on makeup, her face, she’s all about how she looks, and she’s only 8.”
From these hints of distress, the parents noticed that Arturo, their seven-year-old, a boy, seemed to be more withdrawn than he had been a year ago. Katrina, they said, seemed to get into a lot of relational issues with other girls that would likely not happen or likely not become major dramas if not for access to social media constantly. Their nine-year-old, Sam, they noticed, was experiencing lower grades and under-motivation. In fact, they noticed a long list of potential effects of all the hours in front of screens. While these elements of behavior could have been affected by other causes, the screen time was so much a factor, it certainly had an effect. Mom and Dad added up their kids hours in front of screens per day and found six to nine hours an accurate reflection.
“But what can we do?” they asked. “We are their babysitters. They come here, sit quietly while we work, they are good kids.”
Is Your Child in Front of Screens Too Much?
They were in a bind that working parents are in everywhere. Screens can babysit. Yet these three essential questions are good ones for all of us.
How many times per day does my child use a Smartphone, and for how long?
How many times per day does my child use an I device, and for how long?
How many times per day does my child use a computer/television and for how long?
Because these screens are a passive form of stimulation on the one hand, not active stimulation like nature-time, exercise, or real world life would be; and because, on the other hand, the screens can overstimulate dopamine and other brain function in negative ways, our brain-vigilance is crucial. Cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development can gradually become impaired and while not all children suffer, most will suffer in some way in one of the three categories.
One child using screens too much might get good grades but seem to become more anxious or depressed because of invisible issues arising in gray and white matter development, as well as brain chemistry and stress hormone function. Another child may make friends via interactive video games, but grades and motivation may suffer. Many children will experience negative physical outcomes simply because they are being too sedentary in front of screens—nature has children set up to move and grow, not sit a lot, but screens make a world of sitting—obesity, back problems, lack of muscle growth…all happen to kids who sit too long.
What You Can Do Right Now
A complete ban on screens is generally impossible and counter-productive. It goes without saying: there are many children for whom using screens and devices is good for the brain. And “active” and “passive” screen time are not the same thing. Talking with grandparents via Skype is active. Much educational programming is active. Video games (in general), playing games on phones, checking social media, staring at a movie or TV show…these are generally “passive” in that they don’t stimulate much of the whole brain.
Here are some healthy-brain tips to consider for family and school policies.
*For children birth to eighteen months, use screens when kids communicate with relatives via Skype or facetime but screens are not needed for much else.
*For children two to five, an hour or so per day is plenty. If more screen time is going to occur, let it mainly be for educational purposes or communication with relatives.
*No Smart phones or cells phones for kids until they are early adolescent and ready for “phone as a rite of passage.”
Trying these policies out will likely mean not handing kids the phone to play with in the car or at an airport or at the dinner table. It is hard to do, but we have to try! It may also mean taking the TV screen of any kind out of the car (or just not using it) unless you are taking a very long trip.
Gail and I gave our kids their phones at 13. Bill and Melinda Gates didn’t give their kids Smart Phones until their kids were 14. They knew the risks.
Screens are not monsters—and some children do not experience negative effects–but every time you are vigilant about over-use of screens, you will help a brain to grow up healthier and happier.
This kind of vigilance can put immense pressure on schools, many of which have moved toward I Pads and Laptops for most or all grades. The more the screens are used at school, the more vigilant parents have to be to protect kids from the screens at home. And I hope teachers and parents will have courageous conversations about the over-use of screens at schools, especially among younger children.
The couple that owned the restaurant still brings their children in some nights with screens, but some nights they have them with grandparents and at play dates, now. They have also moved toward more active programming and they don’t give the children Smartphones.
They made small changes that they are comfortable with. There is so much we are all learning daily about screens and the brain. We are all learning it together in an ever-changing human community.
By Michael Gurian