The Truth About Screen Time

 “As you say, in truth, this machine is designed to trigger a revolution…

and this is this revolution that I consider as necessarily resulting in the

most dire consequences… As in any and all things, even in matters

of progress, the good, when it is counterbalanced by a greater evil, must

 be shunned as a public calamity.”

While this quote from could easily be about any screen-based technology, it’s not. It’s about the sewing machine. When first introduced, many worried sewing machines would replace jobs, encourage laziness, and destroy craftsmanship. They also believed the machine would destroy women’s purity due to their moving their legs up and down to work the pedals.

The sewing machine did indeed change society. By proving women could master complex machinery, it set the stage for women using other machines, such as typewriters. In doing so, it ushered in an era of increased employment options for women. It also coincided with the rise of college programs to teach women skills like using sewing machines. Through these programs, women gained widespread access to higher education. Not all sewing machine fears were unfounded, however. The ability to mass-produce clothing did indeed replace some individual craftsmanship, and ushered in sweatshops.

New technology is often met with fear. Parents today are bombarded with warnings about the harm screens will wreak upon their children. But which warnings are evidence based and which are knee-jerk reactions to new technology? How do you protect your child’s developing brain without denying them potential benefits?

I studied film in college. I could do that because film is a legitimate art form. Moreover, it’s something I love and want to share with my kids. The idea that all screen time is bad seems as reactionary as the idea that my sewing machine will turn me into a dirty, dirty whore. I decided to look at the research and see which concerns are valid, meaning evidence based, and which are akin to sewing machine induced pearl clutching.

Screen Time Myths Debunked

Myth #1: Screen time is addictive; the brain responds to screen time the same way it responds to illicit drugs.

TruthDrugs create a pleasure response in the brain, but so do other, healthy activities. Technology use increases dopamine levels by 50-100% over baseline. Similar increases occur when you are eating something delicious or conversing with a friend. Cocaine, on the other hand, increases dopamine levels by about 350%, amphetamines by about 1,200%, making them substantially more addictive than screen time and other everyday pleasurable experiences.

Myth #2: Screen time has no educational benefit because developing brains can’t process it the same way they do real life stimuli.

Truth: While kids under two years old likely cannot process screens the way older kids can, research proves educational shows have significant positive impact on children. A long running study found that kids who watched Sesame Street reaped educational benefits comparable to attending preschool. Another study showed that preschoolers who watched Daniel Tiger and discussed the show with their parents had higher levels of empathy and self-confidence than preschoolers who watched a nature show. Studies like these prove that, given the right content, kids certainly can learn from screens.

Myth #3: Screens are detrimental to family interaction and togetherness.

Truth: The social and emotional benefits in the Daniel Tiger study came when parents and children discussed the show. Screen time offers families opportunities to engage by discussing what they’re watching. Problematic parts of media can offer parents opportunities to teach children values. Screen time can also be a shared interest over which children and parents connect. My oldest daughter and my husband love playing video games together; a friend who grew up watching Labyrinth had a great experience showing her son the movie. Even when used as a distraction, screen time can offer 20 minutes to collect ourselves so we can connect with our children from a place of calm. Conscious use of screen time offers opportunity for connection.

Benefits of Screen Time

Benefit #1: Technological proficiency is a necessary skill.

My husband and I met in law school, which clings to teaching hard copy research skills. However, by the time I left practice in 2012, most attorneys conducted research predominately online. When deciding on a school for our oldest we had the choice between one that did not allow screen use, and one with a computer class for every grade. We went with the school that recognized computer skills are academically necessary. Now, at 5 ½, our daughter can effectively research topics on the computer. We’ve learned a lot about robots.

Benefit #2: Screen time can reduce anxiety.

At the end of a stressful day, don’t you want to just lie on the couch and binge watch Netflix? The research supports what we know from experience; screen time reduces both pre and post operative anxiety in pediatric surgery patients. The effect was enhanced when the screen time was active (a tablet game) rather than passive (watching a movie), likely because games provide a sense of control in addition to a distraction.

Benefit #3: Screen time can build motor skills and hand eye coordination.

My husband grew up with unlimited video game time, while I was allowed 30 minutes of screen time a day (which I usually saved for TGIF). Turns out the embarrassing difference in our athletic ability may be more than just coincidence. Studies show that gamers have better hand-eye coordination, and a heightened ability to learn new sensorimotor skills. Even my mother, screen phobic in the 1990s, downloads games for my kids on her iPhone and gushes to me about how well they build fine motor skills. The reason for her change of heart? She’s a physical therapist and can see the way touch screens work a toddler’s hand muscles.

Benefit #4: Screen time may be responsible for an increase in children’s patience.

 Anyone who took an introductory psychology course is familiar with the marshmallow experiment testing patience. Today, kids participating in the experiment wait an average of 2 minutes longer than kids in the 1960s and 1980s. One possible explanation is the increase in games, played on tablets, which give kids practice delaying gratification.

Drawbacks to Screen Time

Screen time’s benefits are not the whole story, however. There are some real detriments to consider.

Screens replace other activities.

The main problems with screens is the amount of time kids use them. The average child under 8 spends more than 2 hours a day on screens, and the average child aged 8-12 spends about 4½ hours. There are only so many hours in a day. Every minute your child is using a screen is a minute they’re not doing something else. Screen time is linked to the obesity epidemic because kids watching TV are not engaged in active play (and are often mindlessly snacking). Kids also need time to explore the world, play outside, interact with friends, have family meals, and get enough sleep. While screen time may not be inherently bad, it certainly shouldn’t make up a third of your child’s waking hours!

Screen time is disruptive to sleep.

The blue light emitted by screens disrupts melatonin production, the hormone that helps us fall asleep. Basically screens tell your body it’s light outside, time to wake up! Screens in the bedroom also serve as a distraction, resulting in less sleep.

Younger kids don’t process screens the same way older kids can.

The benefits above depend on the cognitive ability to process two-dimensional images on a screen. Children under age two lack the necessary neurological framework to do so. Therefore they reap no educational benefits from passive screen time, like watching TV (the jury is still out on other types of screen use, like tablets). This is why, in 2006, the FCC forced Baby Einstein to stop calling their product educational, and in 2009 the company issued refunds to parents who purchased their products based on purported educational value. Because they don’t learn from it, TV replaces valuable learning time at this age. Additionally, studies show screen time impairs ability to focus by distracting from real world stimuli and by cycling through images too quickly.

Reasonable Screen Time Rules

So what’s a parent to do? Set reasonable rules around screen time based on both its benefits and drawbacks. Consider what works for you and your family. Based on the research, here is what I’ve worked out for my family:

  • Limit screen time as much as possible before age two. None is best, but sometimes you have a long plane ride or get the stomach flu- life happens. In this case go with a tablet game that engages your child, or a show that’s slow paced. I’m especially fond of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which will actually follow Mr. Rogers across the house in one long shot to avoid over-stimulating quick cuts.
  • Limit screen time for older kids to and average of two hours or less a day. Most weekdays I aim for under an hour of screen time. We’re more flexible on weekends since we like to have family movie nights, and my oldest daughter and husband like to get in some video game time in. My biggest concern is not the amount of screen time itself, but the amount of time they spend doing other things like playing outside, reading, and spending time engaged with friends and family. If my kids had a really busy day with sufficient physical, mental, and social stimulation and want to unwind with a movie or video game that’s fine with me. I find it easiest to stick to a routine where my kids get screen time at a particular time of day so they are not asking for it all the time.
  • Keep screens out of bedrooms, and limit screen time before bed so as not to disrupt sleep hormone production.
  • Content matters! Watch with your kids as much as possible. I know it’s the only time you have to get stuff done. If you have an open floor plan, make dinner and listen in. I fold laundry or workout in front of the TV with my kids. If you can’t pay a moderate amount of attention, put on something you have seen before. My kids have seen Moana approximately 8,000 times- I’ve seen it about half that. I know I’ve addressed any content issues already and am fine if it’s on when I’m not watching. Research media that might have questionable content or raise issues you want to discuss prior to letting your kids watch it. Before I had kids I thought I would pre-screen everything they watched, but no one wants to spend their limited free time watching Boss Baby. Common Sense Media gives a pretty good overview of what is appropriate, sex, language, and violence-wise. This blog aims to prescreen for you, and give guidance on where media provides opportunities to discuss social and moral issues.

Just remember your main concerns should be time and content. As long as you’re reasonable about these two areas, don’t stress too much about screen time. This weekend, find a kids movie you love, make some popcorn, and share it with your kids. Happy viewing!

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