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Is Screen Time Affecting Your Child's Development?

04 December 2015

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The formative years from 5 to 12 are a crucial time for a child’s mental development. Between kindergarten and middle school, children learn skills required to count and read, and then nurture those building blocks as they develop more extensive math skills, reading comprehension skills, and critical thinking. However, this generation of youngsters has something added into their educational mix that no prior generation has had in such capacity: screen time. Our toddlers know how to use our smart phones, our children enjoy staring at tablet screens all day, and preteens are alarmingly attached to cell phones and the television.

Spending time on a smartphone or tablet is not always detrimental, but can actually be a helpful part of a child’s mental development. There are plenty of useful, educational apps and games that foster positive mental development. The struggle lies in the balance. As parents, where do we draw the line between the educational benefits of screen time and the dangers it presents?

Proven Mental Benefits of Turning Off the Screens

Research shows that children reap benefits from turning off the screens and spending time reading, exploring, and playing outdoors. In fact, joining your child in the act of reading can have significant benefits. The National Education Association shows that younger children who are regularly read to by a parent know their numbers sooner, can write their own names sooner, and start reading on their own sooner than children who did not spend time reading with a parent. As children get older, the benefits of reading are evident in higher-level reading proficiency and better overall performance in school.

Research from the National Wildlife Federation shows that turning off electronics and spending time outdoors also has wonderful health benefits for children, both physical and mental. Spending ample time outside learning and exploring in a natural environment has been shown in children to increase critical thinking skills, increase the ability to focus on tasks, and decrease stress and anxiety levels.

Getting off the couch, away from screens, and up and moving also not only gives physical benefits for children, but psychological, as well. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education both suggest that encouraging kids to get at least one hour of physical activity per day through unstructured playtime promotes the development of mature decision-making skills, conflict resolution skills such as sharing and negotiation, creativity, leadership, and social skills.

Limiting Screen Time

Obviously, getting away from electronics is beneficial, but with the abundance of kid-friendly devices available, sometimes rules and schedules must be set. Amy Shirola, a regular contributor to the OKC Moms’ Blog and mom of three children ages 12, 9, and 7, sees several reasons to limit screen time.

“I don't want my kids to be dependent on technology to entertain them, and I'm sure it's not good for their eyes to stare at a screen for hours. I want them to use their imagination, and I want them to interact with people when others are around.  I give my kids an hour of screen time each day, with opportunities to earn more by doing things like chores and acts of service. We also unplug completely on Sundays.” Amy recognizes, however, that sometimes, letting her kids use technology is a good way for her to be able to accomplish certain things without interruption.  “I would be lying if I didn't admit I throw in some free technology days when I just need to get things done! It's a double-edged sword.”

Is It a Better Idea to Let Kids Self-Regulate Screen Time?

Conversely, some parents choose to take a different approach when it comes to regulating how much time their kids spend on tech devices. Zina Harrington, author of parenting blog “Lasso the Moon,” feels that limiting screen time only makes it more enticing to her children. “Instead of restricting screen time,” Zina suggests, “we need to teach our children balance in a world where technology is abundant. We must introduce them to the concept of mindful usage.” Zina is a proponent of involving children, at an appropriate level of conversation, in setting their own boundaries with screens. Her tips for encouraging kids to play elsewhere? Be flexible, but also mindful of your own dependence on screens. Don’t expect your children to not want time on the iPad if you’re constantly checking your phone or are on your laptop when your kids need your attention. Take the initiative to read books or play outdoors with your children as a time you both look forward to.

Pediatricians Weigh In

Studies have shown that actual human interaction and two-way communication trigger higher brain activity levels in children than when they are simply interacting with a screen. Excessive media usage has also been linked to attention problems and sleep disruption in young kids. Since 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that parents limit screen time for children above age 2 to less than 2 hours per day. However, as technology becomes more prevalent in our lives, most pediatricians realize that these guidelines are not always realistic, and the AAP is in the process of revising their screen time recommendations. Their newer guidelines suggest a more common-sense approach: be mindful of your own media usage, set boundaries that work for your family just as you would any other activity, make sure the content your children are viewing is age-appropriate and educational when possible, and most importantly, engage, talk, and play with your children regularly.

INTEGRIS Pediatrician Dr. Bradley Burget supports limiting screen time. "One of the primary reasons for this is habits," he says. "We make many recommendations in early childhood in trying to prevent bad habits that adults can deal with later in life. I myself have to continually fight to not be on my phone while at home with my kids. It is important that we set good examples as parents and that we actively monitor how much screen time our children are getting. Technology is a wonderful thing and should be used to our advantage, but physical activity and regular human interaction are also vitally important to the development of children and should be encouraged as well."

Help Your Kids Get the Most Out of Screen Time With These Educational Apps

GoldieBlox and the Movie Machine (for aspiring innovators and engineers, free)

Vocabulary Spelling City (grade-level-appropriate word games, free)

WonderBox (explore science, geography, music & design, free)

Story Creator (build-your-own storybook, free)

Reading Rainbow Skybrary (books and video field trips to get kids reading, free)

Toontastic (storytelling from multiple points of view, free)

Sushi Monster (reinforce age-appropriate math skills, free)

Stack the States (American Geography, elementary ages, $1.99)

SkyView (identify constellations, planets and more, $1.99)

Faces iMake (promotes right-brain creativity, $2.99)

Monster Math (use math skills to defeat the monsters, $5.99)

What are some of your kids’ favorite educational apps and games? How do you approach screen time limitations? Let us know on Facebook.