February 24, 2015

Addressing screen-time concerns

Screen Time: The effects of technology use on children and their capacities to learn  

In today’s world, technology is everywhere and is a growing concern for parents of students of all ages. Children rely on their phones and computers for almost everything, from spell-checking to calculations, note-taking, social media, movies, calendars, navigation, gaming, and more. Young students have built such an attachment to their devices that researchers and journalists have already dubbed them “Generation Swipe,” or “The Touch-Screen Generation,” a generation that can gratify almost any need, instantly, with just a few swipes on a screen.screentime concerns

The most alarming statistics, perhaps, are the total amounts of time children and adolescents spend in front of a screen. The Kaiser Family Foundation, which conducted a survey of students ages 8-18, discovered that these children spent nearly 8 hours in front of a screen each day. Additional studies by the CDC found that a whopping 90% of U.S. 12-15 year olds used a computer or other device every day. 75% of those same teens exceeded the 2 hour daily limit on “entertainment” screen time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, collectively.

At home, an increasingly difficult parenting challenge is how best to limit and monitor technology use. Children and teens are nearly inseparable from their devices and often cannot appropriately monitor their technology use alone. Students report becoming endlessly distracted by social media, television, apps, and games, to the detriment of their school work. And parents find themselves at a loss for a solution.

The Pros and Cons:

As technology becomes increasingly more prominent in the lives of children, psychologists and educators consistently reconsider the role of “screen time” in the classroom and at home. While the use of technology has many positive benefits for young students—increasing their efficiency, lending new organizational tools, and providing access to boundless resources—studies have shown significant detriments of screen time, too.  

Screen time can negatively impact sleep, physical and mental health, social development, and some aspects of learning. And, in our high-tech world, screen time takes up larger and larger portions of students’ days. So how do we determine how much is too much? And how can we best teach the appropriate use of technology, inside and outside the classroom? Consider the following studies on the impact of technology; then, you can decide how best to monitor your children’s relationships with their screens.  

Screen time before bed:

  • Prolonged screen time, especially right before bedtime, can disrupt sleep, alertness, attention, and lead to long-term sleep deficits and associated health problems.

Face-to-Face or Face-to-Phone?

  • More time in front of a tablet or smartphone minimizes face-to-face social interactions, which can impede young students’ social development.  

Screens, Inactivity, and Mental Health:

  • Extensive screen time has also been linked to childhood obesity and some mental health problems, like increased anxiety levels and depression.

Early Literacy and Learning: Old-fashioned or High-tech?

  • Studies suggest that technology can outstrip the skillsets of young and developing minds, forcing them to build motor skills and multi-task in ways their brains cannot yet accommodate.

How much Screen Time is Educational? And how much is not?

  • Research conducted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center contends that less than half the time kids between the ages of 2 and 10 spend in front of screens is spent consuming “educational” material.

Carving out a solution:

With so many positive benefits, and so many negative outcomes, it can be difficult to reconcile the appropriate use of technology in school systems and at home. However, many educators and researchers have determined that “educational media,” and time spent using technology to complete schoolwork, make up only a small percentage of overall screen time accumulated by students each day. The problem lies almost exclusively in the use and overuse of technology for entertainment purposes.

Reporter and mother of two, Lisa Guernsey, resolved to unravel the oft-debated mystery of “screen time” and its effects on developing brains. In her book, “Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software– Affects Your Young Child,” she advocates for a plan focusing on “the three C’s” of screen time: content, context, and the individual child. These three components, used together, can moderate technology use to promote the individual child’s curiosity, learning, and social development, while also mitigating negative concerns and outcomes.

Content: establish a “healthy media diet”

Echoing Guernsey’s “three C’s,” Marjorie Hogan, a pediatrician at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, says that families should encourage a “healthy media diet” for their children. That is, parents can apply the same concepts to media that they might apply to their child’s intake of healthy nutrients and junk food: Strike a balance between entertainment media, educational screen time, and face-to-face interaction. Choose content that supports your family values and determine what is appropriate for your child’s own unique development.

A “healthy media diet,” according to GreatSchools.Org, is all about knowing your children, knowing your values, and using your own discretion even if your children cannot yet adequately use their own. For example, if a child is prone to nightmares, but cannot limit his “scary screen time” alone, parents should:

  1. Limit his access to scary media (using television and internet-based parental controls, like ).
  2. Explain why they have done that, how that choice mirrors family beliefs, and how they are looking out for their child’s best interests.

These two steps give children support in selecting appropriate content, while explaining the decision as one that was not arbitrary or authoritarian, but tailored to the individual child. Likewise, if a child is too young (under 2 years old) to properly process digital media without incurring social detriments, then these steps may be modified to keep media exposure to an absolute minimum.

These limitations will hopefully turn children toward screen-free, age-appropriate activities that benefit their educational, physical, and emotional development. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital writes that, “For every hour our kids spend on the screen, they should spend at least one squeezing mud between their toes in the backyard. An iPad can’t dig a hole in the sand or build a fort out of sticks and mud.” Rich reiterates the necessity of active engagement in pointing out these activities that “screen time” may be outmoding. A “healthy media diet” encourages all of these “muddy” activities that build important motor skills, social skills, and healthy lifestyle habits, while also incorporating media thoughtfully and carefully.

Context: set family rules and stick to them – yes, you too Mom and Dad!

Rich also points out a heated issue in the intersection of technology and parenting: “We need to get involved and stop using it as a babysitter.” Even though technology can be a tempting way to “take a step back from the demands of our children,” constant screen time also takes away from children’s learning opportunities and social skills. At the end of the day, a “healthy media diet” is not just about quality of content, but also about quantity of consumption: The more our children use screens, the less time they are spending exercising, connecting with the real world, and interacting face-to-face with friends and family, interactions which readily build their social IQ and real-life problem-solving abilities. 

To keep media use safe and effective, we can teach our children the appropriate contexts for technology as a way of limiting their overall screen time.  GreatSchools.Orgsuggests that parents:

  1. Set clear family rules.
  2. Stick to those rules until long-term habits are built.
  3. Model appropriate screen time use through their own behaviors.

Most importantly, parents must remain consistent and show their children where and when screen time is acceptable, over many years. For example, if the house rule is that TV is off-limits throughout the day, except from 7-9pm at night, that rule stands for everyone. Another great way to limit screen time is to monitor the use of smart phones, collectively, at the dinner table: Try having everyone place their phones face down in the middle of the table. The first one to touch their phone does the dishes!

Whatever the rules are, reinforce them by holding yourself accountable, too. Ultimately, parents need to participate in their children’s screen time in order to monitor it most effectively and extract the most benefit from media. Set an example of considerate technology usage by:

  1. Keeping technology in common spaces within the home. Avoid placing TVs and devices in your children’s individual rooms, so that they will have to use those technologies together, with you, in main living areas.
  2. Using technology in social contexts. Lisa Guernsey and researchers at “Zero to Three” all advocate for the use of technology together to balance the social deficits technology use can cause. Institute a “family movie night” or play charades together using the “Heads Up!” application.
  3. Asking thoughtful questions and inviting your child to engage with the characters and motives in the programs you watch together.  

But, no matter what, maintain consistency and maintain it over the course of your child’s upbringing. And, if your child cannot follow the rules you’ve set on their own, then you need to intervene and help them adapt. Maybe you’ve decided that smart phones are not allowed at school, but you don’t want your child to be without an emergency contact. So what do you do? Consult your wireless provider and temporarily turn off your children’s data functions during school hours. She can still call you if she needs you, but she won’t be surfing the internet during math class.

Your Child: If he could, he would.

Each individual child will grow at different rates, will relate to technology in different ways, and will require different technological support. In particular, managing screen time relies heavily on the executive function skill of self-monitoring, which not all children have in abundance. Engaging Minds often uses the phrase, “if he could, he would” to explain why some students do not perform in the way that their parents expect. That is—if your child could exercise the necessary restraint to monitor his own screen time usage, he would. But he probably cannot, having not yet developed the skillset.

Parents, all the time, report that their children won’t put their XBox down in favor of their schoolwork. Their child consistently proves that he cannot monitor his relationship with computers. If this is the case, and your child cannot self-monitor (an important EF skill), then no matter how old he is and how much we wish he could self-monitor, we need to be proactive and help him manage the time. If it comes down to it, parents must limit the screen time, and take the games and media away, until their child proves he can handle it.

On the other hand, some students thrive with looser limitations. It’s all about who is using the screen and how. Collette Loll Marvin, a teacher at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and mother of two, stopped imposing limits on screen time for her son. She reports, “I saw that for him it was an interest like sports or music, and that he was using technology as a tool for creativity.” Marvin’s son “turned technology into a serious pursuit, building his own computer,” and exercising genuine curiosity, engagement, and active learning, thereby enriching his education.

Experts Agree

“If used appropriately, it’s wonderful,” [Marjorie] Hogan says of digital media. “We don’t want to demonize media, because it’s going to be a part of everybody’s lives increasingly, and we have to teach children how to make good choices around it, how to limit it and how to make sure it’s not going to take the place of all the other good stuff out there.”

In an article for the Washington Post, Molly Knight Raskin writes that, “Until research offers clarity, experts agree the best thing we can do is find a way to manage screen time that works best for our families, and ensure it’s being used judiciously. And we need to be mindful that when our children are in front of a screen, they are not climbing trees, painting pictures, caring for baby dolls or building towers with blocks.”