Screen time and developing brains

Q: Sometimes it feels like today’s technology is so overwhelming it’s impossible to manage it as a parent. My young kids love screens – watching or playing – and it seems like in one sitting they get addicted. When we try to shut down the TV or iPad they turn into complete beasts. It’s especially hard after a vacation, or when weather has kept them indoors for a few days. Any advice?

A: It’s hard to keep up with all the screen time research and recommendations, and even harder to shift the tides at home when the kids get used to it. Parents today have a greater screen time challenge than ever before – screens are ubiquitous! If it’s not a video game console or television at home, it’s iPads or a DVD player in the car, or a parent’s phone in the restaurant or shopping cart. Plus, these games, streaming services, and apps are almost all portable so it can be easy to supply it and hard to get a kid to desire something else.

One reason there’s such a hubbub about screens in this media-heavy society is that young children have immature brains that are developing rapidly and they are unable to fully utilize media to learn the way adults can in terms of tucking it away and intentionally pulling it out later to use it in real life. Developing brains are unable to exercise self-control and curb obsessive behavior so they lack an “off switch” for activities that dump dopamine, like many apps and video games do. Perhaps more importantly, screen time is time not spent engaged in healthy activities such as physical play, parent-child interactions, mind-meandering time, and sleep. Which is why the WHO provides recommendations for sleep and active play.

Before you hide the remotes and tell your children that screens rot their brains, let’s explore it a bit further. Screens aren’t bad; rather, they’re something you can use in a healthy or unhealthy way. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledges media can enhance daily life when used intentionally. The goal is threefold:

  1. Of course, limit the use of passive screen time (watching a TV show without discussion about the show) and addictive screen time (games or apps that activate the reward system in the brain). The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends no screen time for babies under one-year-old and one hour for children over two.
  2. Engage in screen time with your children. Learn to play their video game and talk with them about what’s happening on the screen. Video games can teach kids teamwork, patience, perseverance, critical thinking, decision-making, timing, planning, spatial relations, and even kindness (depending on the game!). They can help children exercise their creativity and logic skills, reading skills, and improve eye-hand coordination. Talking with your child about the social interactions in movies and TV shows can help turn entertainment into something more meaningful. Writing, reading, and saying the letter S Elmo just taught you and your toddler makes it more “real,” something that exists and is useable in their world and not just Elmo’s.
  3. Balance it with other important life activities: social time, family time, outdoor play, exercise, and downtime that allows your mind to go wherever it likes without being directed by an external source. Also, sleep. Television viewing has been shown to reduce sleep efficiency without affecting sleep patterns, so it might seem that your child is sleeping just fine even with excessive television but it’s likely the quality of sleep has been affected. Blue wavelength light emitted by screens suppress secretion of melatonin, the sleep hormone. A lack of REM sleep can affect mood, memory, and learning; and has been linked to migraines and obesity.
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    As with many things in life, with screens you want to strive for quality and balance, and teach that to your kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests creating a family media plan that fits your values and lifestyle. If you’re dreading changing the screen time habit- well, hang in there. Habits are hard to break no matter one’s age, and young kids who especially have the sense that everything will stay just as it is forever may be shocked and indignant when it changes. If screen time is your child’s currency, save part of it to use as reward for getting responsibilities done. And who knows? Maybe engaging in media with your children will strengthen your connection and make them more interested in doing other non-screen things with you. Win-win!