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Screen Time: Recognizing Risks and Finding Solutions
March 10, 2014
Dr. Sage Wheeler, ND
There has been much talk, and much research, about how the time your child spends in front of a video screen affects their health. We all know our kids are getting too much. In fact, on average, kids are getting 4-5 times the recommended amount of “screen time” each day. Most of the research suggests that this screen time largely has negative effects on your child’s mental health. It also reveals that there is relatively little conflict between parents and children about screen time, suggesting that parents are just as guilty of overuse as their children and my actually endorse it.
As a parent I can appreciate how easy it can be to use screen time to placate your child when you have other matters that require your attention. It is way easier for me to let my 4 year old watch TV while I help my 10 year old with his math than it would be to try to engage them both at the same time. Unfortunately, this digital babysitter comes with a high cost. I recently found an amazing compilation of research at zonein.ca, compiled by pediatric therapist Cris Rowan. It is fantastic work and I suggest you read the factsheet in its entirety. For now, I will present to you the top 10 findings compiled by Dr. Rowan herself:
1. Rapid brain growth
Between 0 and 2 years, infant's brains triple in size, and continue in a state of rapid development to 21 years of age (Christakis 2011). Early brain development is determined by environmental stimuli, or lack thereof. Stimulation to a developing brain caused by overexposure to technologies (cell phones, internet, iPads, TV), has been shown to be associated with executive functioning and attention deficit, cognitive delays, impaired learning, increased impulsivity and decreased ability to self-regulate, e.g. tantrums (Small 2008, Pagini 2010).
2. Delayed Development
Technology use restricts movement, which can result in delayed development. One in three children now enter school developmentally delayed, negatively impacting literacy and academic achievement (HELP EDI Maps 2013). Movement enhances attention and learning ability (Ratey 2008). Use of technology under the age of 12 years is detrimental to child development and learning (Rowan 2010).
3. Epidemic Obesity
TV and video game use correlates with increased obesity (Tremblay 2005). Children who are allowed a device in their bedrooms have 30% increased incidence of obesity (Feng 2011). One in four Canadian, and one in three U.S. children are obese (Tremblay 2011). 30% of children with obesity will develop diabetes, and obese individuals are at higher risk for early stroke and heart attack, gravely shortening life expectancy (Center for Disease Control and Prevention 2010). Largely due to obesity, 21st century children may be the first generation many of whom will not outlive their parents (Professor Andrew Prentice, BBC News 2002).
4. Sleep Deprivation
60% of parents do not supervise their child's technology usage, and 75% of children are allowed technology in their bedrooms (Kaiser Foundation 2010). 75% of children aged 9 and 10 years are sleep deprived to the extent that their grades are detrimentally impacted (Boston College 2012).
5. Mental Illness
Technology overuse is implicated as a causal factor in rising rates of child depression, anxiety, attachment disorder, attention deficit, autism, bipolar disorder, psychosis and problematic child behavior (Bristol University 2010, Mentzoni 2011, Shin 2011,Liberatore 2011, Robinson 2008). One in six Canadian children have a diagnosed mental illness, many of whom are on dangerous psychotropic medication (Waddell 2007).
Violent media content can cause child aggression (Anderson, 2007). Young children are increasingly exposed to rising incidence of physical and sexual violence in today's media. "Grand Theft Auto V" portrays explicit sex, murder, rape, torture and mutilation, as do many movies and TV shows. The U.S. has categorized media violence as a Public Health Risk due to causal impact on child aggression (Huesmann 2007). Media reports increased use of restraints and seclusion rooms with children who exhibit uncontrolled aggression.
7. Digital dementia
High speed media content can contribute to attention deficit, as well as decreased concentration and memory, due to the brain pruning neuronal tracks to the frontal cortex (Christakis 2004, Small 2008). Children who can't pay attention can't learn.
As parents attach more and more to technology, they are detaching from their children. In the absence of parental attachment, detached children can attach to devices, which can result in addiction (Rowan 2010). One in 11 children aged 8-18 years are addicted to technology (Gentile 2009).
9. Radiation emission
In May of 2011, the World Health Organization classified cell phones (and other wireless devices) as a category 2B risk (possible carcinogen) due to radiation emission (WHO 2011). James McNamee with Health Canada in October of 2011 issued a cautionary warning stating "Children are more sensitive to a variety of agents than adults as their brains and immune systems are still developing, so you can't say the risk would be equal for a small adult as for a child." (Globe and Mail 2011). In December, 2013 Dr. Anthony Miller from the University of Toronto's School of Public Health recommend that based on new research, radio frequency exposure should be reclassified as a 2A (probable carcinogen), not a 2B (possible carcinogen). American Academy of Pediatrics requested review of EMF radiation emissions from technology devices, citing three reasons regarding impact on children (AAP 2013).
The ways in which children are raised and educated with technology are no longer sustainable (Rowan 2010). Children are our future, but there is no future for children who overuse technology. A team-based approach is necessary and urgent in order to reduce the use of technology by children.
Clearly there is a problem and this problem needs to be addressed, and I fully support the conclusions of the above research, but I feel that all of these research has ignored two important points. The first point is that we need to be realistic. For years I have recommended that parents limit their children’s screen time to 2 hours per day. This recommendation is often met with “the look” - that look that patients give me when I tell them to do something that they feel is ridiculously impractical. Often when physicians dole out “impossible” advice it goes largely ignored. This brings me to the necessity of my second point, choose quality over quantity. I have a rule at my house, 2 hours of screen time. However, I also have exceptions for quality material. My two older children can play on Khan Academy and a few other education sites and apps for as long as they like. My youngest (4) can play with the the iPad whenever she likes, but only if she plays one of several educational apps that make her write out her ABC’s with her finger, learn the sounds of each letter, and learn the value of basic numbers with interactive counting games. I do my best play these along with them as much as possible and ask them questions about what they have learned. When parents are actively involved in what their kids are watching and playing, we can offer more real-time guidance as to the appropriate amount of time spent and quality of material be consumed.
Finally, I would like to bring to the conversation a discussion about what our kids are missing out on because of all of this screen time. Of these, there are many: playing with friends, family time, active games, hands on puzzles, art, reading real books, daydreaming, sleeping, and just plain being bored (something I actually miss). These are all very important things, and parents should take care they are being incorporated in their children’s lives. However, I feel the most important thing missing from the lives of modern children is nature. Good ol’ mud, sticks, and stones. Research by the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University at the University of Illinois reveals that daily walks through “green spaces” improved focus significantly, “shockingly better” according to the lead researcher, Dr. Andrea Faber Taylor.
In conclusion, I would like to offer a simple equation to offer your children who may have developed an insatiable thirst for technology: for every minute of screen time they must spend an equal amount of time outdoors. A simple solution for a complex problem, one that I hope will have shocking results for you and your family.
1.) Rowan, Cris. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cris-rowan/10-reasons-why-handheld-devices-should-be-banned_b_4899218.html. Accessed on 3/9/2014.
2.) Faber Taylor, A., Kuo, F.E., & Sullivan, W.C. (2001). “Coping with ADD: The surprising connection to green play settings.” Environment and Behavior, 33(1), 54-77.