Technology is a ubiquitous force in today’s society—there is hardly any aspect of our lives that remains untouched by its influence. It is incredible to think that less than 2 decades ago, the concept of having computer-like, handheld devices was a mere thought—one that is now our reality. The advent of smartphones and tablets has signaled a shift in media consumption, as the Internet became readily accessible. The onset of the pandemic also led to the rise of remote work—both in the workforce and in schools. Many parents were now working from home, while watching their kids get an education through a screen. As we slowly return to a sense of normalcy reminiscent of pre-pandemic levels, many schools are integrating different forms of electronic media permanently into their curriculum. And school is not the only place children are using these devices. Kids are also spending hours by the screen (watching television, playing games, surfing the web, etc.) when they return home. As our children grow up with their faces lit up by a tablet screen, many parents are wondering how screens are affecting their child’s development. This then raises the question: How much screen time should kids be getting and how are they affected by it?
Statistics on Children and Screen Time
This generation of children is unfamiliar with a world pre-Internet and smartphones. They are growing up amidst these technological advancements, viewing them as essential parts of the human experience. A 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center discovered that 60% of children under the age of 12 were exposed to smartphones before the age of 5, with 31% of that group being exposed before the age of 2.
Parents were surveyed about the devices their child has used or engaged with; the responses are as follows: 88% of parents stated TV, 67% tablet, 60% smartphone, and 44% desktop or laptop computer.
That same study also discovered differences between the type of digital device children interacted with based on age. Seventy-three percent of children ages 9 to 11 tend to use desktop or laptop computers, compared to children ages 5 to 8 (54%) and children under 5 (16%). Similarly, 68% of children ages 9 to 11 use gaming devices, compared to children ages 5 to 8 (58%), 3 to 4 (24%), and under 2 (9%).
According to the National Center for Health Statistics in 2020, of children between the ages of 2 and 17, 65.5% of boys and 64.6% of girls spent more than 2 hours of screen time per weekday. This number accounts for schoolwork as well. The survey showed a correlation between age and screen time; as age increased, the hours of screen time went up as well. For example, 47.5% of the 2 to 5 age group spent more than 2 hours of screen time versus 80.2% of those in the 12 to 17 age group.
Drawbacks of Screen Time
Excessive screen time can lead to many problems for children. The following are 6 things too much screen time can potentially cause:
Research by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health identified an association between TV watching and obesity. Spending too much time in front of a TV screen can lead to inactivity, as evidence shows that children with TVs in their room are at a higher risk of becoming overweight than children without TVs in their room. The content advertised on television, which lean towards unhealthier foods, also plays a factor in child obesity.
- Irregular sleep
Kids often stay up later to use their electronic devices, which can make it difficult for them to maintain a regular sleep schedule or easily fall asleep. The blue light emitted by screens can trick the brain into believing it is still daytime, leading to lower levels of melatonin and disruption of circadian rhythms—both of which are crucial to a good night’s sleep.
- Behavioral problems
Studies have shown that children who have higher screen times also have a 20% higher likelihood of developing behavior problems (aggression, inattention, anxiety and depression, etc.). That’s not to say that high screen usage causes behavioral issues in children, but that there are some correlations between the two. Parents should note that the duration of screen time is not the only culprit; how children engage and interact with the content displayed to them is another thing to consider.
- Impaired academic performance
When it comes to academic performance, the question that should be asked is now “how much”, but “what type”. A JAMA Pediatrics analysis proposed that the type of screen a child uses can affect their academic performance. Television usage was correlated with lower language, mathematics and composite test scores, while video game usage was correlated with lower composite test scores.
Children can become desensitized to violence through media overexposure. Many people point to video games as a large reason for inciting violent behavior in children, so parents should be mindful of what children are engaging with online.
- Less time for other activities
Before the Internet was introduced, kids spent most of their time playing outdoors with others or engaging in creative activities. Since its introduction, the Internet has taken up a majority of children’s free time, making them more sedentary and less social.
Benefits of Screen Time
However, people argue that there are some benefits exposing children to screens can offer. Thanks to the Internet, students were able to stay connected to their classrooms even with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many schools are investing in technology by equipping students with laptops and/or iPads for classroom use. As the world becomes more technologized, it is intuitive for schools to follow suit and incorporate electronic devices. Students will be able to learn how to navigate these technologies earlier on, as knowing how to use smartphones and computers is a necessary skill today.
Not to mention, there are an increasingly large number of education sites and applications popping up; whether you want to learn a new language or brush up on some history, you are bound to find online content for it. The Internet has provided us with the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, and it is our responsibility to utilize it correctly.
Skills like multitasking, visual-spatial development, and problem solving are thought to be improved through the use of technology. Multitasking can come in the form of taking notes while watching a video, while visual-spatial development and problem solving can be exercised through certain games.
Recommendations for Parents
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has set some guidelines for parents to follow regarding media consumption for children. Here are a few of those recommendations:
- No screen time for children under the age of 2
- 1 hour of screen time (high-quality programming) for children 2 to 5, parents should watch with the child and ensure the child is understanding what they are seeing
- Turn off electronic devices when not in use
- Do not give children electronic devices as a means of calming and/or distracting them (i.e., when children are crying, on an airplane, etc.)
- Monitor the content (apps, games, videos, etc.) children are consuming to ensure they are appropriate for their age
- Avoid screens in the bedroom or at the dinner table
- No screens 1 hour before the child’s bedtime
It is important to remember that these are all suggestions made by the AAP, so while they do hold scientific weight to them, they do not have to be strictly followed. Each family is different and can adjust these guidelines to fit their lifestyles.
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Electronic devices are not going anywhere for a long time. They have their benefits and drawbacks, but parents should monitor their children’s usage and set reasonable limits on the amount of screen time they can have. There is no doubt that technology has changed our world—arguably for the better. However, we should be cognizant of the effects it can have on us and pay attention to how much media we are consuming.