Do smart screens impact childhood development?

Parenting comes with a never-ending stream of worries over diet, socialization, fitness, mental health and countless other problems. As if that weren’t stressful enough, recent studies have parents adding a new worry: smart screen time.

Nowadays, kids as young as one or two have their own iPads, smart phones and tablets. Kids of all ages spend hours a day playing apps, video games and watching television or movies.

It’s an effective way to keep children quiet and entertained, but experts are asking: at what cost?

Research is inconclusive

The technological boom has many people wondering if screen time affects childhood development. The results are in, but those results are inconclusive.

Most of the studies in this field make it clear that there is a relationship between screens and development. It’s just difficult to prove causation or to rule out other factors.

Part of the problem is that the technology is still too young. It’s difficult to study the long term effects on children when the tech is only five or ten years old.

Negative findings

Although there are currently no ironclad conclusions, enough studies have shown negative side effects of screen time to make parents and experts concerned.

For example, there seems to be a link between screen time and ADHD, but that relationship is complicated.

The connection is currently very circular. Kids with ADHD have screen fixation. They can pay attention to tech screens for hours, but they can’t concentrate on “real world” tasks like school or non-electronic gameplay. Moving around the circle, the more time kids spend in front of screens, the more kids tend to receive ADHD diagnoses.

Does ADHD cause screen fixation? Does screen fixation cause ADHD? Or is the truth somewhere in the middle? Science may not be 100% sure yet, but simple common sense is enough to see a connection between hours spent on fast-paced, highly-edited programs and the inability to focus on daily tasks and events experienced uncut, in real time.

Positive findings

Yet not all studies and observations lean towards a negative view of screens.

Research from the American Psychological Association suggests that video games can provide social and cognitive benefits. Skills like memory, reasoning, spatial awareness and peripheral vision have all been positively linked to video game play.

Multiplayer games have been shown to promote a variety of social and reasoning skills. Cooperative games can help children work on developing teamwork and leadership.

Popular games like Minecraft can also provide a safe way for kids to test limits and learn the consequences and rewards of taking risks. For example, falling from a tree in Minecraft will cause serious injury or death, a lesson that carries over to real world risk management.

Age appropriate, in moderation

As with any aspect of child development, keeping it age appropriate and in moderation is the key when it comes to screen time.

Think of it this way: Carrots are great, but your child isn’t benefited by a diet of carrots alone. Cake doesn’t offer much nutritional value, but a slice every now and then is just fine. And an infant’s digestive system has not developed enough to process either.

Studies agree that children aged tow and under should not be exposed to screen time. For older children, screen time should be a small portion of their day, no more than two hours, with the rest filled with combinations of active play, independent play and social interactions.

Screen time or not, it’s important that kids play. Active play — running, exploring, playing sports, inventing games with peers — is crucial to kids’ health and development. Physical exercise lowers risks for obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Playing physical games with peers promotes the same leadership, decision making and cooperative skills as multiplayer screen games. However, real world play has the added bonus of helping kids learn to read body language, facial expressions and tone of voice.

Although screens can be a lifesaver when taking a cranky kid out in public, it’s important that kids learn to entertain themselves. Not only does it help promote reasoning and independence, but it also provides a long term solution to public behavior.

Try practicing quiet play at home. Begin with five minute increments and build until your kids can read, color or amuse themselves during a meal out or a religious service without needing a screen to facilitate their entertainment.

Mommy (and daddy) guilt can be crippling. However, it’s important to remember that, while kids should not spend the entire day in front of a screen, occasionally handing over the iPad so you can get dinner on the table is not going to ruin your child’s development.

Image: Free Image Bank



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