Benefits and Risks of Screen Time for kids and parents

Benefits of Screen Time for Kids

We often hear about the downsides of TV watching for kids – aggressive behavior after watching superhero shows, short attention spans after watching fast-paced action shows, etc. Are there any benefits of screen time – time spent watching TV, playing video games, or using mobile devices?

For young children (8 and under), the majority of the time they are spending with screens is spent with “educational content.” Ever since the early days of Sesame Street in the late 60’s, there has been a huge growth in educational media: television, computer games, and now apps. High quality educational media can have benefits for children age 2 to 8:

  • High quality TV can lead to improved social skills, language skills, and school readiness. (AAP)
  • Educational media can expose children to the broader world far beyond their community: they can learn about exotic animals, historical events, a wide range of musical and artistic styles, diverse cultures and lifestyles, and scientific concepts like interplanetary space.
  • Story-telling, whether in books or video, allows children to experience social interaction and emotional challenges vicariously. Watching characters interact positively can teach manners and social graces. Watching a character deal with grief can help a child learn to manage it.
  • Media can teach concrete skills, if the skill is demonstrated slowly and repeatedly. In one research study, children were shown a 20 second long video of an adult playing with a toy by taking it apart. 90% of 24 month olds, and 65% of 14 month olds were able to copy those actions. www.parentingcounts.org/information/documents/copycats-100-710-200907.pdf
  • Media can also teach basic academic skills like ABC’s and counting, and help children memorize basic facts, like the order of the planets or the order of the colors in the rainbow. The kinds of skills that can be learned by drilling with flash cards can typically be learned in a more engaging way with media.

It’s important to note that these benefits are from high quality, developmentally appropriate programming. Not all media is created equal! Don’t choose games, videos or apps based on the company’s marketing. Instead look for independent reviews and ratings of a product’s learning value. One good source is Common Sense Media (see resource list.)

Also, the majority of the research has been done on children age 2 to 8, focusing on television viewing. There is very little research showing benefits of media for children under age 2.

There is also very little research on the modern experience of highly interactive touch-screen apps, though some theorize that these will be more effective “educators” than a passive screen experience.

It’s also important to note that there is very little information that children can only learn from the screen. Parents who believe that educational media is very important for healthy development are likely to use media twice as much as other parents. But the AAP reminds us that “Unstructured playtime is more valuable for the developing brain than any electronic media exposure. If a parent is not able to actively play with a child, that child should have solo playtime with an adult nearby… solo play allows a child to think creatively, problem-solve, and accomplish tasks.”

Benefits of Screen Time for Parents

Experts frown upon parents using media as “a babysitter”, but we need to be honest that media is very good at this job! Parents often need a way to keep kids busy and out of trouble while they make dinner, take a shower, do household chores, or work from home. Screens are one of the quickest ways to distract a kid. (Single parent families report more media use in their households, probably because they don’t have a second parent available to entertain the kids while they get jobs done.)

(FYI, you can learn more here about how much screen time kids are getting.)

Parents also use screen time as “company” for themselves. Spending all day at home with a small child can be very isolating, and having the TV on in the background or checking Facebook can reduce the parent’s loneliness. Listening to a podcast or reading an e-book can provide some much needed mental stimulation in the midst of a day filled with finger painting and Dr. Seuss.

Mobile devices have added a new benefit. Parents have learned that they are remarkably effective at keeping a child quiet in environments such as doctor’s offices, restaurants, and churches. (Of course, parents have also learned that trying to take away a mobile device in one of those areas, or having the battery die on a mobile device, can lead to a huge eruption of noise and disruption!)

Problems with Screen Time

Again, the majority of the research is on kids 2 to 8 years old, and on television viewing, but much of it may also apply to younger children and/or other media.

Television has been linked to obesity, sleep issues, aggressive behaviors, and ADHD. Early TV viewing is correlated with (i.e. doesn’t necessarily cause, but is related to) deficits in executive functioning – attention, memory, problem solving, impulse control, self-regulation and delayed gratification. Children younger than 2 who watch more television show delays in learning language.

Research may not show this specifically, but anecdotally, teachers report that children who use media often become passive, lose creativity, and forget how to entertain themselves without a screen.

Amongst 8 to 18 year olds surveyed, heavy users of media and moderate users when compared to light users (less than 3 hours a day) were: less likely to get good grades, more likely to say they have a lot of friends, less likely to get along well with parents, less likely to be happy at school, are more often bored, more often sad or unhappy, and report that they get into trouble a lot.

Media can be addictive. The more toddlers watch, the more they want to watch, and the more upset they are when it is taken away. Many parents report that it is much more challenging to transition a child from a media device to another activity than it is to move from one unplugged activity to another. Parents can also be addicted: one survey showed 53% of adults feel upset when denied internet access, 40% feel lonely when unable to go online (www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2017543/Britons-deprived-internet-feel-upset-lonely.html#ixzz1T7IEFW00 )

It may not be that media itself is harmful – some of the issues may be what kids miss out on when they spend time on screens. One study showed that for young kids, every hour of TV time meant 50 minutes less per day of interaction with parents and siblings and ten minutes less of play. (cited in AAP report) We know hands-on play, human connection, eye contact, and interactive conversation are essential for learning many skills. When children are on screens, they simply get less of that.

When parents are also engaged in their own screen use, this further limits interaction. There are plenty of articles and opinion pieces bemoaning the sight of parents looking away from their child’s eyes and into their IPads. There are also plenty of blog posts from parents defending their right to take a sanity break now and then, and defending their need to distract their child while they tend to the business of the day. Both sides have good points – and both sides may be more strident than they need be. As with many things in the life of a parent, we need to find our own way, thinking intentionally about our priorities, and striking a balance that works for our family. See here for tips from parents and experts.

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