Screen time: How too much electronic media can be bad for our children
Since television sets became commonplace in the average British household, parents around the country have known the delights of plopping their little one down in front of the screen and letting the world of child-oriented media take over the parenting duties while mum and dad get things done around the house. And in today’s modern world, it is becoming more and more usual to see children glassy-eyed and glued to their own personal computers, smartphones and tablets. It is easier than ever for kids to get involved with electronic media; child-friendly apps, games, television programmes and films are abundant, with a number of them boasting educational and skill-building benefits for your little ones. Schools are even taking advantage of technology, with teachers setting homework which must be completed on a computer via a virtual learning environment.
There is no doubt that there are benefits to children spending time in front of a screen. Television programmes and games for youngsters are designed to teach them communication, vocabulary, mathematics, languages, logic and any number of other skills; and this they do, whilst providing parents with a well-needed rest. However, today we attempt to answer the question which crosses every parent’s mind at some point: is too much screen time bad for my child? What potential negative effects could spending too long in front of the iPad or PC have on my child’s development – and how do we define how much time is ‘too much’?
Between birth and the age of three, your child’s brain is developing at a rate incomparable to anything seen in later life. As infants experience the world around them, taking in new sights, sounds and smells, thousands of neural networks are formed which shape the way your child understands, interacts with and views the world. It’s essential during this period that your child takes in as many sensory experiences as possible- the more, the better.
Research has shown that if television, tablets and smartphones are offered too regularly during this ‘critical period’, it can inhibit this crucial brain development which serves as the bedrock on which all future learning and development is based. Children who are exposed to too much electronic media at an early age can, in the future, suffer from problems focusing and concentrating, and communicating with others. This is because stimuli from the outside world are necessary to kick-start development in these areas, and children simply aren’t getting that from tablets and smartphones.
As for the later periods your child’s development, the effects of screen time can be just as bad. Researchers at UCLA found that 11 to 12 year olds who spent just five days without using smartphones and tablets scored significantly better on tests related to reading human emotions than their counterparts who continued using technology. The scientists claim that the results they found were related to the lack of face to face communication inherent in interacting through technological devices. This suggests that not only can excessive screen time negatively affect intellectual development, but social development too. Moreover, there are multiple worrying studies which show how screen addiction at all ages- toddler, teenager and even adult- can lead to grey matter atrophy, impaired cognitive functioning and damage to the dopamine system. Too much screen time can physically damage the structure and function of the brain in children of all ages.
The increasing use of technology has long been criticised, among other reasons, for worsening the current public health crisis. More than 25 years ago, research at Harvard implicated excessive TV watching in causing obesity, and ‘extensive research’ since then has confirmed that link. While the use of smartphones and tablets does not do anything in itself to cause children (and adults!) to gain weight, the sedentary behaviour that comes with it does. Studies show that computer, video game, and Internet use all positively correlate with increases in weight.
There are more physical problems besides weight, too: allowing your children more than two hours of screen time a day increases the risk of raised blood pressure. An incredible one in ten children developed the condition which is, of course, a major risk factor for further cardiovascular diseases in later life. Again, the studies pointed to the sedentary nature of screen time as the cause of this problem. This is all besides the day to day physical stresses that screen time will cause your children, such as eye strain, neck strain, and wrist strain.
Given all the ways in which screen time is known to hinder children’s development, health organisations around the world have issued guidelines and recommendations for parents confused about how much time with technology is too much. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for instance, suggests that parents and caregivers create a family media plan to limit time spent with smartphones, tablets and games consoles. They recommend that children younger than 18 months avoid screen media entirely apart from face to face video-chatting, e.g. through Skype or Facetime. Children aged 2 to 5 should have no more than 1 hour per day. As for children older than 6, the AAP suggests that the limit is at the parents’ discretion, but that this limit should be consistent on a day to day basis. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, too, have suggested that screen time should be limited generally for children to 2 hours a day, and that families should take TV-free days to reconnect with one another. They may choose to use a specialist screentime app.
As for what will work with your family? That’s another matter. Well intentioned research is one thing, but it’s another entirely to get your iPhone back from a grumpy toddler.
American Academy of Pediatrics, ‘American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Children’s Media Use’. aap.org, October 21, 2016. Accessible online at: https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use.aspx
Arthur, Charles, ‘Of course children need limits on their screen time – but how to enforce it?’ The Guardian, September 23, 2014. Accessible at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/23/children-restrict-screen-time-nice-how-enforce-it
Dunckley, Victoria, ‘Gray Matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain’. Psychology Today, February 27, 2014. Accessible online at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201402/gray-matters-too-much-screen-time-damages-the-brain
HSPH Obesity Prevention Source, ‘Television Watching and Sit Time’. HSPH, No Date. Accessible online at: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-causes/television-and-sedentary-behavior-and-obesity/
Margarit, Liraz, ‘What Screen Time Can Really Do to Kids’ Brains’. Psychology Today, April 17, 2016. Accessible online at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/behind-online-behavior/201604/what-screen-time-can-really-do-kids-brains
NHS Choices, ‘Over two hours screen time a day may raise a child’s blood pressure’. NHS Choices, February 26, 2015. Accessible online at: http://www.nhs.uk/news/2015/02February/Pages/Over-two-hours-screen-time-a-day-may-raise-a-childs-blood-pressure.aspx
Wolpert, Stuart, ‘In our digital world, are young people losing the ability to read emotions?’. UCLA Newsroom, August 21, 2014. Accessible online at: http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/in-our-digital-world-are-young-people-losing-the-ability-to-read-emotions