In a world where teens are inseparable from their screens, and younger children are even more irresistibly drawn to spending inordinate amounts of time in front of screens – TV, smart phones and video games – parents are often left wondering how they should react to it. Some argue it is important for parents to respond to the times so that the kids keep up with technological developments, the younger the better. Others are more skeptical and have vaguely heard about limiting screen time as being something parents should do. Still others have no opinion on the matter and let their kids do whatever they want.
Today, the average child clocks in more than seven hours a day in front of the TV, internet and video games. At the same time the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting the screen time for kids to less than one or two hours per day (depending on age), and for kids under the age of two, none at all. Some pediatricians and neuroscientist even advice to ban screens completely before the age of three! When this is mentioned to parents, a huge portion of them seem flabbergasted and wonder what the fuzz is all about? Why take such drastic measures? How bad can it be?
I was about to give you a whole sum up of the negative impact on the brain, including grey matter atrophy, loss of white matter integrity, reduced cortical thickness and impaired cognitive functioning. All these are true and scientifically proven. And scary as it sounds, what does it really mean? Well, In short, excessive screen-time impairs the structure and functioning of the brain. Most of the damage occurs in the frontal lobe, which undergoes important changes from puberty until mid-twenties. The proper development of the frontal lobe determines the success of the child in every area – from academic success to better interpersonal skills.
But let me try to explain this in another way. Digital technology does not only consume attention (of which we only have limited amounts), it also shapes the brain. All these devices and apps are designed at grabbing our attention and not letting it go. They are cleverly designed to tap right into our reward system. We get instant little kicks of dopamine every time we reach a new level of a game, we defeat an enemy boss, we watch a funny video on Youtube or even when we hear the little beeping sound of a new message. Dopamine is all about instant gratification. It’s about here and now. And feeding our kids’ brain levels of dopamine that they would never get in a non-screen environment is a recipe for disaster. With an average of 7 hours of high dopamine screen time, the rest of the day looks pretty dull and boring. You know, that part of the day where they ought to be at school, learning the skills and acquiring the fundamentals that will help them become successful individuals in their later life. With the constant thrill-seeking behavior, the kids brain is on the lookout for the next dopamine shot, which means that kids become increasingly distracted and won’t be able to focus. And if you can’t focus, you can’t learn.
The instant gratification that children get from their screens is in direct contradiction with the patience and grit one needs to be successful in life. Here I like to refer to the amazing Marshmallow experiment of Walter Mischel. I wrote about it before and will again, as it was a milestone in our understanding of what makes an individual successful in life. In short, it all comes down to those first years and how we are able to say ‘no’ to temptation. The more we can resist, the stronger we will stand later in life.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop here. The time our kids spend in front of a screen, they are not spending it developing other, necessary skills. Small kids, toddlers, who are spending too much time in front of a screen aren’t developing the fine motricity skills they would otherwise by playing with clay, scissors, coloring, drawing, etc. You might already have seen a toddler trying to change the page of a book or magazine by swiping it. As funny as it seems, it’s a clear warning that screen time is off balance.
And there is more.What can we say about the impact of screen time on socialization, emotional intelligence and psychological well-being? One of the greatest developments in the last decades in the field of psychology is the surge of positive psychology. Instead of looking to understand what was wrong with us, this branch of psychology looks to understand what makes us happy. The answers found were disturbingly simple and all pointing into the same direction: the other. Yes, we are social beings. It’s the core of who we are as a species. It’s the reason why we were able to fare well and rise against all odds to dominate this planet. We find meaning, consolation, hope and happiness when we share our time on this earth with the people we care about. It fills us, it completes us, it turns us into healthy and balanced individuals.
Now look at screen time again. What happens? Kids, alone in their room, playing (often violent) games. Even when they are together, they are alone, due to our limited attention span we can only focus at one thing at a time. And the screen wins.
Ok, one more, just in case it wasn’t already bad enough. Sleep deprivation. The excitement of the dopamine rush is obviously not compatible with the quiet and calm we need to find sleep. Now devices increasingly use this blue lighted LED screens which also disrupt melatonin rhythms and further keep us from falling into Morpheus’ arms. Now if there is one thing that every parent knows, is that a child who lacks sleep will become cranky, irritable, moody, won’t be able to focus, let alone learn.
Now of course all these things won’t happen if you let your child use these devices from time to time, with moderation. And when visiting friends or family, your 12 months old baby ends up in front of the TV, watching the Teletubbies, it won’t get brain damage either. It’s about patterns, repetition, daily reinforcement of stimulus which end up altering the brain. And of course, a Skype conversation with your aunt is not the same as a game of Mortal Kombat.
So I guess, it all comes down to what foundation we want to give our children. Allowing excessive screen time won’t turn them blind or crazy. As always, it’s much more subtle than that and has consequences for the long run. Screen time is counterproductive to laying the foundations that will turn our children into the bright young men and women we hope they one day will become. Now that you know that, and even though there is a lot of peer pressure from the other kids, parents or even our own relatives to give in and let them play/watch/swipe,
what will you do?