Screen Time

 In Circle the Child, Weekly Forum Discussion

Written by: Stephanie Orphanacos; Circle the Child


I remember watching our black and white tv and talking to friends on our kitchen phone via an extra-long curly cord. Children of today have a few more options available to them when it comes to visual entertainment and over-the-airways connections. Today’s kids have access to everything from basic computer games like Leap Frog, to tablets, cell phones and Smart screen tvs.  The options for viewing and connecting via satellite are essentially endless.

We all know about the benefits of computers and their hand-held counterparts but are there any concerns about their use, that are specific to our children? At what point does screen time become a problem? The answer is a wee bit complicated. It depends on a number of factors; the age of your child, what activity they are doing on their screen, how long they are attached to their device each day and what time of day are they using it. Why don’t we tackle these component pieces one at a time?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) developed guidelines for parents regarding screen time in 2016 and the first thing they noted was that children under 18 months of age should not have any access to screen time. The Canadian Paediatrics Society (CPS) in 2017, agreed and held an even stronger position. According to CPS there should be no screen before two years of age, with the exception of video chatting with family. Children 2-5 years of age can access up to one hour of screen time a day. Ideally, this would be limited to quality programming, related to skill acquisition and educational material. Kids from 6-18 should top out at no more than 2 hours a day, with a limit on social media.

Am I the only parent that went “Yikes” when I read this? Why do the experts weigh in so heavily on screen access? According to David Anderson, a clinical psychologist and senior director at the Child Mind Institute, it’s especially important “to be very cautious when using screens with young kids, as young kids are in a critical developmental period.” The early years are the best opportunity for a child’s brain to develop the connections they need to be healthy, capable and successful adults.

The connections needed for many of the important, higher-level abilities like motivation, self-regulation, problem solving and communication are formed in these early years – or not formed. Essentially, children have a small window to learn and to grow brain connections. If they miss the window, it’s much harder for these important neural connections to be formed later in life.

Mr Anderson’s opinion is supported by a study done at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Their research indicated that the brain structure in kids may be altered with more screen use. Researchers looked at the MRI scans of 47 preschoolers and found that screen time over the AAP’s recommendations, was associated with differences in brain structures.  These differences were noted specifically in the areas of the brain related to language and literacy development.

At this pre-school age and stage, children “require face-to-face interaction,” said Anderson to reach developmental milestones. These milestones include building social skills, developing empathy, understanding emotion and learning how to build and navigate personal interactions.

As our children get older, the issues around screen time become different but are no less concerning.  Children 6-18 encounter a whole host of other problems. Sleep disturbances are perhaps the most common. One study found that having a device in our bedroom overnight, interfered with the quality of our sleep, even if we were not using our device. We have become so attuned to the numerous bells and tones that indicate a new text message or email that each auditory signal reaches us, even in our sleep.

Let’s face it, mobile devices and their apps have been designed to capture our attention and to keep us coming back. Our teens and tweens are particularly susceptible to the draw of screen time.  They are constantly monitoring how many likes they get, they read messages and notifications in real time and access the top trending stories several times a day. Experts say that teens pick up their phones on average 150 times a day and that is a conservative number. This activity creates short, interruptions in real-world relationships.

There is also a link between teen social media use and the emergence of mental health concerns.  A US study that followed over 6,500 youth, determined that adolescents who spent more than 3 hours per day using social media may be at heightened risk for mental health problems, particularly internalizing problems. Internalizing problems are those things that our teens might keep to themselves like depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation.

If your child is happy and healthy, doing well in school and involved in regular recreation with friends, then they are probably okay.  But if your child is moody and short-tempered, struggles to make it to the dinner table without first finishing his level on his game and has difficulty engaging socially, it might suggest a shift in some of the current household screen habits is in order.

What should we do? As parents we have to educate ourselves and understand that screen time actually does effect a developing brain very differently than our fully functioning adult brain. It is up to us  to monitor and mentor our children about safe and healthy on-line use.  That may include how long children stay on a device, what types of media they are engaging in on-line and what time of day is most appropriate to protect their brain growth.

We are going to have to start the conversation with our children. I suspect it will be one of those on-going and ever-changing dialogues.



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