Screen Time A Double Edge Sword

There are genuinely many wonderful things that can be brought into our children’s lives with a small screen. We can take them to the moon and under the sea. We can show them hundreds of animals and expose them to music from all over the world. There are even times when we can use our phones to give us that much-needed break when we’re out to dinner and want to eat our food while it’s still hot. It’s not hard to wonder what exactly too much screen time is costing our children’s brain development. Psychologists and pediatricians alike agree that too much screen time has a negative effect on a child’s brain. While this may be a hard pill to swallow for the Nintendo generation, we must really heed their warning, and it won’t be easy because the risk starts from day one.

With every selfie we take with our children, they are exposed to a screen. That screen is already starting to augment the child’s reality. We use our fingers to zoom in and see things close up, and many parents have laughed as their child uses their tiny fingers to try and zoom in on the pages of a physical book. This simple action, while silly and cute, has no on/off switch, according to Liraz Margalit Ph.D. In her article in Psychology Today, she warns that:

“all actions have an immediate effect, and all stimuli elicit a quick response” and that “a child’s brain responds gleefully with the neurotransmitter dopamine, the key component in our reward system that is associated with feelings of pleasure.”

Liraz Margalit Ph.D.

No right-minded parent would want their child to burn out their reward system at such a young age, but we see it happening daily. Think about each time you’ve taken the phone away from your child, and a meltdown ensues, especially when they’ve grown past the point where age can be an excuse. Those reactions are the results of too much screen time and the effect it has had on their mental health. So what’s a mom to do? The answer is both simple and challenging.

The Cleveland Clinic recommends children who are preschool age and younger be limited to only one hour a day. That one hour includes TV time, cell phone interactions, and any kind of tablet. But The American Academy of Pediatrics counters this suggestion by recommending absolutely no screen time for children under two. Now, whose advice do you follow? How do you gauge what impact watching too much TV or playing on a computer, tablet, or video gaming system will have on the brain when the authorities can’t even agree?

As a full-time working mom of two, I will happily admit that there have been plenty of times that I have turned on a show or movie for my children just so I could get some housework done. But the moment that show or movie is over, even though I am exhausted beyond a pot of coffee, I do my best to sit down and color with them or take them outside to play.

This kind of face-to-face interaction with our kids is what pediatrician Skyler Kalady, MD, highly recommends. Not only are we bonding with our children and creating grounds for a healthy relationship, but it also helps our kids learn social skills and how to interact verbally and nonverbally.

“Just sit down with your child, or chase them around and let them explore their environment ― even if it’s a little bit exhausting,” she says. “When they are quiet, read them a book or play with ‘old school’ toys like blocks and puzzles, toys without electronic parts. This allows children to explore, be curious and learn the best.”

Skyler Kalady, MD

With all the warnings surrounding screen time, we’re left to wonder, what are the best ways to allow our children to interact with what has become an everyday tool for adults? The recommendations that I found on multiple websites were a lot easier to digest when it came to limiting screen time instead of taking it away altogether. But the recurring theme that came with these recommendations was that parents need to take an active role in what their child is interacting with. That doesn’t mean hovering all the time. Just check in on your kids. Ask them questions about what they are playing or watching. Engaging in what they are interested in goes a long way for both parties.

It’s not fair to label all screen time as evil, especially when educational television shows and games sneakily teach kids coding, engineering, and foreign languages. Even though doctors don’t agree on what age children should start interacting with screens, they agree that playing games on a tablet or with a video game controller can help with hand-eye coordination and lead to quicker response times.

Letting children play with and learn from technology isn’t a bad thing. However, it shouldn’t be their only form of entertainment and learning, and parents must set that example for them. If we spend every waking moment with our faces in a screen, they will learn to do the same. Our children need to see us reading actual books and taking walks outside. If we want our children to limit their screen time, they have to learn this behavior from us.

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