Monday, January 25, 2016

Screen Time

    At Christmas time I walked out of a restaurant and saw five little boys sitting quietly in a row in the lobby area obviously waiting for a family dinner party.  I stopped to stare just a little. Quietly?  Can a group of little boys ever wait quietly?  Sure.  Each boy had a little phone or electronic gadget with a movie or game playing in front of him.  Each boy was entirely engrossed by his own tiny screen.

     Tiny screens, big screens, our children are surrounded by screens that do magic things, like keep a row of small, hungry boys happy in a crowd.

     Are these screens really as magic as they seem?

     Recently I attended a class on Children and Technology taught by Deena Strong, LMFT, LCSW, and Ph.D.   She had some interesting things to share about research in that field and her observations of families in her clinical practice.

     In her presentation, Dr. Strong referenced many articles and a breadth of research, but one of the sources Dr. Strong has used that she recommends as being accessible to parents is What in the World are your kids doing online by Melton, B. and Shankle, S., (2007) New York; Broadway Books.

     Dr. Strong suggests that for children ages 0 to 3 there are no advantages whatsoever that come from the child using or being exposed to technology.  Infants need nurturing from loving caregivers – they need a person, not technology, no matter how good it is. Infants need to bond to humans and create trust.  A screen just can’t do that.

    Research reports that Baby Einstein and similar programs  have not shown to be of any benefit to infants.  In fact, there was a 17% decrease in language development for children 0-2 who were exposed to screen time “baby technology” and a 7% increase in language development in toddlers who were instead read to by a caregiver. 

      As baby grows just a little older, Dr. Strong advises that parents of toddlers encourage independent play and interactive play with other children instead of media use.  Children this age usually play beside each other, rather than interact, and it is important for them to have a parent or adult that encourages and facilitates interactive play.

     For children over the age of three technology might have a place in their daily schedule, but Dr. Strong recommends for the 3 to 6 year old the child’s total daily computer and video game time be limited to 45 minutes.  This does not include television time, but TV time should be monitored and limited as well.  Dr. Strong explained that the growing child needs very hands-on, concrete experiences in the physical world. Children need to figure out how to do things on their own.  In short, they need to run and play and test themselves against the challenge of real things, like trees and bikes, instead of screen action.

     “Children need to develop empathy, and that comes from play and interaction and the realization that what they do affects someone else,” said Dr. Strong.  “Children need to learn to resolve conflicts with friends.  They need to participate in unstructured play.”

     In those years from ages 3 to 6 children learn boundaries and to take responsibility for their choices.  They expand their cognitive skills and abilities and they need to take on pretend roles.  They need to test themselves in the actual world around them, not just become immersed in a prepackaged fantasy world.  Technology offers only standardized, pre-packaged approaches that offer less opportunity for initiative.  Even if a game seems to be exciting and interactive, it is all still very scripted and standardized.

     Another concern that Dr. Strong expressed was that children sitting in front of a computer or screen are isolated.  “They miss vital opportunities for cooperation, collaboration and leadership.”  Learning to get along well with others really is a big deal and interacting with a computer doesn’t do that.

      Dr. Strong’s  most important  guideline to remember in considering technology and appropriate use for children is that “Every minute your child is using technology, that is a minute he or she is not moving, breathing fresh air, getting the benefits of sunlight, or learning about him or herself, or learning  how to get along with others.”  And a final thought she added, consider making dinner time a “no-phone and no internet zone.”

     I think Dr. Strong offers sound advice.  Our children have decades as future adults to sit in front of a computer screen and so few years right now for digging dinosaur bones, tree climbing, Superman capes and Snow White dresses.  Besides, all those devices will still be there in a few years, only they will be sleeker, smarter and cheaper for you to buy.  The gizmos can wait, childhood can’t.

© Diane Mangum