In this blog, pediatrician Mark Bertin, M.D. describes how screen time affects children’s development and why parents should embrace screen-free time.
Parenting often has less to do with knowing what to do but doing what we know. Whether it is healthy eating or getting kids to bed on time, we have clear ideas about what is best. It’s making the right thing happen that’s hard.
This discrepancy becomes more complicated when it comes to technology and screens. We have at least a vague sense the situation may be less than ideal, as we watch a generation become more attached to time on screens and less to time with people. There’s also confusion about what parents should or shouldn’t do or how much and which kinds of screen time are truly harmful. That ambiguity leads to doubt and makes it easy to get caught up in habit. We let routines drift instead of taking stock and making intentional choices.
During Screen-Free Week 2019, you can hit reset and check in with your values. Technology isn’t inherently good or bad – it’s about how we use it. Take a short break to reassess and readjust where you see fit. Wake up, check in, and make an active choice about how your family should live.
Facts Do Not Change Minds (Check Your Beliefs)
To be blunt: Strong parental management of screen time correlates with better behavioral, social and academic outcomes in children. Consistent sleep and exercise paired with less screen time also improves overall cognitive functioning. Children require guidance from adults to grow healthy and strong.
Why is that true? Executive function is a set of cognitive abilities acting as our ‘brain manager,’ which are used to monitor our behavior, make plans and stick to goals. These include life-management skills, the ability to plan, and the ability to exercise judgment. It is a path of development and much like language, only begins to grow in early childhood. Unlike language, executive function does not fully mature until our late twenties.
Early childhood measures of executive function amazingly relate to adult well-being, influencing relationships, jobs and health. Children with advanced executive function in childhood do better both behaviorally and academically. And while executive function develops at its own pace, it’s also true that environment can negatively impact its progress. Which brings us back to screen time.
Largely because of executive function, children lack the perspective to fully anticipate the future and moderate their behavior. Room to learn through trial and error has its place, but much of education stems from what adults directly model and teach. It is no surprise this generation has been shown less active, less fit and less happy than previous ones. Lots of kids living with excessive screen time will do that.
Resisting technology-saturated childhood is not an older generation pushing back against change. Research already shows that too much screen time influences children for the worse. In truth, too many of us shrug this off. Children rely on adults to set boundaries and to provide teaching and advice.
Beliefs Change Minds (But Check Your Facts)
We all want our kids to be happy and successful. Going with the flow around screens may seem easier and cuts down on family debate. It frees up time when our children entertain themselves for hours on end, too. And yet, you can believe that nagging feeling that less screen time would be valuable for your children.
With only so many free hours, who should decide how many are spent on screens – you or some company? Smartphones and video games use proven psychological techniques to influence behavior, which is why nearly everything we do on a device is tracked. If that process didn’t work, it wouldn’t be financially lucrative. It takes effort and maturity to step back, take note, and choose when and where screen time is OK.
Screen time influences development by replacing healthier activities. For starters, it erodes two educational foundations, unstructured play time and reading. Everything from reading to art, exploring the yard to making up a game, takes more effort than time on a screen. Increasing screen time has also been linked to worsening attention spans. The list of evidence continues into much of child health, as research connects excess screen time to sleep troubles, less exercise, obesity, mood and more.
That sense you have that a child on a screen seems disconnected from actual people – that’s often real. Research verifies what seems like common sense, such as studies showing that background television and smartphones both limit conversation. Teens who spend more time on social media are at risk for jealousy and depression. When the power goes out, stories follow about rediscovered moments with board games, or time cuddling together on the couch reading by flashlight. Technology can help us connect, but is that how your family uses it most of the time?
A sense of reconnection with the world around us is obtainable at any time we choose – if we choose. Unplugged, we engage differently with people, and fill our time with creative and mentally active pursuits. As little as one week off screens has been shown to improve social emotional skills. It’s hard, and it’s an adjustment, and kids push back – but we can regain control of technology. For modern families, little is more important than making sure your children use technology instead of being used by it.
Prioritizing What You Value
The whole concept of a week screen-free may seem extreme. Why abstain? But it’s free, only a week, and you’ll learn so much. Hard as it may be to consider – and harder still to implement – you and your children will almost certainly benefit. Trust yourself and create balance for your family moving forward.
You want resilient and successful children. For that reason alone, it is vital to remain truly connected with open-ended free play and personal relationships. These foundational activities directly support healthy brain development. Whether wrestling with weight issues, school troubles, overall unhappiness or poor behavior, we often overlook one simple first step: without you, your kids’ well-being easily gets undermined by over-reliance on screens.
In our tech-saturated world, involved parents steer children towards what they need to grow. It may start with one week, but can include screen-free family meals, one day every weekend, vacations, or device-free summer camps. Starting now, rediscover your own best intentions around a balanced and healthier lifestyle for your family.
Dr. Mark Bertin is a developmental pediatrician and author of How Children Thrive, Mindful Parenting for ADHD and The Family ADHD Solution, which integrate mindfulness into the rest of evidence-based pediatric care. Dr. Bertin is on faculty at the New York Medical College and the Windward Teacher Training Institute, and on the editorial boards for Reach Out and Read and Common Sense Media. He is a regular contributor to Mindful Magazine, and his blog is available through mindful.org and Psychology Today.