I saw a family of four—mom, dad, son, about 10 years old and daughter, about 5—sitting together at a restaurant. All four were using a device. Mom and Dad had their smartphones, the son had a handheld video game, and the daughter had an iPad.
Another family in the restaurant had no devices, but they were all looking at the big screen televisions.
A mom came walking down my street with a stroller. She had the stroller seat facing her, so the child could see her. “Great!” I thought. As they came closer, I realized that the mom was texting with her phone and the toddler in the stroller had an iPad.
Technology is here to stay. Can it be beneficial to children? Of course. Kids have access to a wealth of knowledge through technology, they can practice learning skills using educational games and videos, they develop eye/hand coordination, and they can gain new vocabulary. Is there also a negative aspect to technology use by children? Absolutely!
Why technology can be harmful to children
According to the American Academy of Pediatricians, studies show that excessive media use can put kids at risk for a variety of problems.
- Vision problems
- Language delays
- Sleep problems
- Problems paying attention and focusing
- Behavior problems
Some of the most important brain development in a child’s life occurs in the first six years. Young children learn best by moving, interacting with real people, doing hands-on activities, and manipulating real objects in their environment. Let’s look more closely at some of the problems screens present for kids.
We are concerned about infants and young toddlers who watch TV or use screens. There are infant seats that actually come with an attached frame that holds an iPad and are recommended for ages 6 weeks and up. Products like these are not good for babies. Staring at a one-dimensional flat screen does not promote eye development. Babies need to develop eye muscles by looking side to side, up and down, and close and far.
While children might pick up some words from a screen, real, meaningful language development comes from interacting with real people. Young children need to watch mouth movements and facial expressions, listen to tone of voice, and practice the give and take of real conversation.
Watching television or a movie, or using a screen does not help the brain relax before sleep. It does the opposite. Children who have unlimited access to screens in their bedrooms do not have the self-control to turn them off when they feel tired, resulting in lack of sleep. Studies have shown a correlation between sleep deprivation and depression.
Attention and focus
When the brain is used to being constantly stimulated by words or movement on a screen, it does not learn to focus, listen and pay attention. This can produce kids who can’t focus on or listen to a teacher, can’t think quietly to themselves when problem solving, and who have a limited attention span.
A child who can’t pay attention, can’t follow directions, doesn’t listen to others, or communicate well often ends up being disruptive and inappropriate in group settings. Excessive screen use can keep a child from developing empathy—being able to look another person in the eye and judge how he or she is feeling, how your words or actions affected that person, or whether or not your words or actions are appropriate.
Children who spend excessive amounts of time using screens often miss out on physical activities. Screen time, especially television and movies, also seems to encourage “mindless” eating—eating without paying attention to how much we eat or when we are no longer hungry.
Lack of basic knowledge of the physical world
Excessive screen use can leave a gap in a child’s knowledge base about the world. A child who sees and moves a ball on a flat, one-dimensional screen may learn something about a ball. He or she doesn’t learn how the curve of the ball feels, how heavy the ball is, what happens when the ball is dropped (gravity), what happens when the ball is pushed (force, momentum and velocity).
What’s a parent to do?
Take charge of technology in your home! Experts say children over 2 should be limited to two hours or less of screen time per day. Decide ahead of time what screen activities (TV, computer, IPad, smart phone, etc.) they may use within this limit. Parents need to monitor and limit their own screen time. You are not “with” your child when you are using a screen, even if you are right next to him or her. Keep televisions and other screens out of children’s bedrooms. Keeping screens in a common family area also helps with safety concerns that these devices pose. Screens should be off during mealtime or other family activity time.