Guest post from Lori Kanat Edelson, LMSW, LMFT
Ask any parent how much time their child spends on their iPad, iPhone or their computer and they will inevitably say, “Way too much time – for sure!” But how much time really IS too much time? We can enumerate the benefits; it’s a great teaching tool, “My child learned the alphabet and colors before he even entered pre-school thanks to the iPad…,” and “How would we ever keep in touch with our family out-of-town if it weren’t for the iPad?” There is no doubt that technology is an incredibly beneficial tool that enables us to do wonderful things, like talk in real-time to friends and family who live across the country. But, like all really good things, too much can be detrimental – technology and screen time are no exceptions.
Our brains are wired to learn from various sources of sensory stimulation; including touch, feel, intonation, eye contact, non-verbals, and much more. These sources become significantly compromised when children and/or their parents are planted in front of electronic screens and miss much of what is going on around them that requires actual human engagement. We are learning that children who have grown up with too much screen time develop impaired social skills, attachments to objects instead of people, and are not responding well enough to their parents and others who are central in their lives. These children have not learned to entertain themselves through play and imaginative creativity, and instead require digital screens to occupy their minds and swallow up their free time. This results from when parents have allowed “too much screen time.”
The World Health Organization released the results of a study in May 2017 confirming that too much screen time can damage children’s health. Not surprising, the rate of screen time for boys and girls has been steadily rising and children are using their devices for two or more hours daily. Between screen time and school time, children are spending approximately 60% of their waking time sitting in place. While television time has been decreasing, time sitting in front of iPads and computers has increased. The overall concern of the researchers is that children are missing out on important time studying, playing and sleeping, in favor of screen time. The researchers are recommending that parents become “media monitors” to assure that the amount of screen time, and the types of screen activities they watch, is appropriate and do not interfere with healthy development.
The American Pediatric Association suggests that children 18-24 months old should not have any screen time, except to participate in video chats with their parents present. From the ages of 2-5 years old, only high- quality programming for no more than one hour per day is suggested. Advertisements and commercials have been studied and deemed detrimental as the graphics are too rapid, the stimulation is too aggressive and the marketing is undifferentiated from the program by kids of these ages. Programs with no commercial interruption are highly preferred. As the child grows, parents must gauge how much screen time makes sense for their child, keeping in mind that unstructured play time is far healthier for overall and specific development rather than screen time. Parents should co-watch with their young children and always monitor the content of the electronic media to be sure it is appropriate and not a replacement for physical activity, reading-based (off-screen), and involves interaction with others.
The APA also warns parents that too much screen time and/or poor-quality screen time leads to obesity, irregular sleep schedules and shorter duration of sleep, behavioral problems, loss of social skills, violence and less time for play.
Probably the most important piece of advice related to screen time is to remember that parents are the greatest role models for their children. Parent screen habits are clearly observed and imitated by children; “If it’s okay for mommy and daddy then it’s okay for me.” Parents need to model putting down their phones at mealtimes to have personal conversations and intimate discussions without glancing at their phones or taking calls that interrupt; they need to show their children that the best quality time is real-time, face-to-face communication – not distracted communication with one’s face focused on their digital screen while others are present. Parents can designate no-cell zones in the home and cell-free activities when they go out. Children’s bedrooms should be screen-free; no televisions, computers or cell phones. There are other more appropriate rooms in the home for screens than the room where we want children to unwind, sleep, read and relax.
While there are not specific “hard rules” for the exact number of minutes or hours children should be allowed to use digital screens, we need to be able to trust our parental intuition and good judgment to decide how much is too much as well as how much seems “just right” for our developing children.
Written by: Lori Kanat Edelson, LMSW, LMFT
Lori Edelson is the Owner and Director of Birmingham Maple Clinic, an outpatient mental health clinic since 1972, in Troy, Michigan, employing 37 therapists and psychiatrists. Edelson’s clinical practice focuses on individual, couples and family issues and she has been a strong advocate of healthy parenting, raising responsible children, the importance of empathy and acceptance, and teaching and modeling respect.
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