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While I’m not opposed to some screen time for my kids, especially within an educational context, I do believe in limiting their screen time. Screen time for kids carries some very real risks.
I believe that some screen time can be beneficial. Screens are not completely off limits for either my 1 year old or my 4 year old.
But although I love technology, I don’t love how easily it can become an obsession and an addiction–both for grownups and for kids.
Note that the experts tend to disagree on what is a risk of screen time and what isn’t, so it’s a little hard to reach a consensus. The research is also challenging because there’s no real control group.
- Ethics boards won’t permit researchers to subject children to more screens when there’s the potential for harm.
- Screen time is so ubiquitous that it’s almost impossible to find a low-media group to use for comparison.
But I believe it’s still helpful for us to know the potential risks when we’re making decisions about how much screen time we’ll allow for our children.
It’s like wearing a seatbelt when you get in the car because you know there’s the risk of an accident. Driving a car does not guarantee an accident, but it does raise your risk.
When you’re informed,
- You can make smart decisions because you know the potential downsides.
- You disarm any fear you may have about technology by demystifying it and understanding what’s real. (Ghosts are scary. People dressed up like ghosts aren’t if you know that’s what they are.)
Here are 5 reasons why I’ve decided it’s important to limit my kids’ screen time (and, incidentally, my own as well.)
1. I limit my kids’ screen time because screens affect sleep quality and quantity
Of the risks associated with screen time, the most well researched are poor sleep, obesity, and aggression.
Of those, sleep is probably the most well documented… And lack of quality sleep has the most detrimental effects.
Related: Why Your Bedroom Should Be a No-Phone Zone
Difficulty falling asleep
Screen time can delay bedtime, and using screens close to bedtime can make it difficult to fall asleep.
The fact that they’ve used a light-emitting device before bed can affect how quickly they fall asleep. Blue light tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime and you should be awake.
This study on the effects of using e-readers at bedtime showed significant effects on sleep quality.
But chances are blue light is only a small part of the problem. The bigger issue is the brain alertness that comes about from using interactive phone applications at bedtime.
When your kids are engaged in exciting activities on their screens, their brains start overproducing cortisol (it happens to grownups too), making it harder to rest when bedtime comes.
In 2016 scientists analyzed the available studies on mobile devices and their effect on children’s sleep. The analysis indicated a strong correlation between access to devices overnight (even if the devices weren’t used!) and sleep quantity and quality.
Their conclusion was that phones in children’s rooms resulted in “inadequate sleep quantity, poor sleep quality, and excessive daytime sleepiness.”
The mere presence of a smartphone in the same room has profound effects on the brain.
We all know how important sleep is for children and their development.
In addition to the psychological and developmental factors, it’s possible that you’ll see an effect on sleep because of increased brain activity.
Ever have trouble falling asleep because your mind is racing? A 2011 study showed an increase in brain glucose metabolism (an indicator of brain activity) from cellphone signals near a person’s head.
I personally noticed that my sleep overall became better and more restful when I stopped sleeping with my phone by my bed.
Difficulty staying asleep
Ever wake up in the middle of the night, check your phone to see what time it is, and get distracted by new notifications?
That temptation can be even greater for children who are still developing logic and impulse control.
Checking your phone when you wake up turns your brain back on and makes it difficult to go back to sleep.
Poor quality sleep
It might not just be the easy access to your phone that affects your sleep; it may be the phone’s communication technology itself.
This small study in Germany seems to indicate that the radio emissions from cellphones affect the structure of a person’s sleep. Their consistent finding was a change in REM sleep.
However, the study’s findings aren’t exactly clear. While sleep was affected, the study was small, and it wasn’t exactly obvious what the results meant.
Our phones do, however, put us in a constant state of alertness, so it makes sense that putting the phone away at bedtime, where your child’s brain can detach from it, will help them to get better sleep.
What’s the big deal about sleep?
Lack of sleep has been linked to depression, anxiety, obesity, difficulty at school, ADHD, irritability, and a weakened immune system. Interestingly, many of those effects are also correlated with excessive screen time.
So it’s possible that poor sleep is the single greatest contributing factor to screen time’s risks.
2. I limit my kids’ screen time because screens prevent boredom
How many times did you tell your parents, “I’m bored,” when you were a kid?
I remember saying it… But of course, I also learned not to say it quite so often when my parents suggested I go wash dishes or clean my room.
Oh, sure, Mom, that sounds like fun.
But I have a feeling kids today don’t say it (or even think it) nearly as often as you or I did.
So what’s the big deal? Don’t we want to keep our kids from getting bored?
Isn’t boredom a bad thing?
Yes, kids who are too bored can get destructive, so I believe in giving kids age-appropriate responsibilities even from an early age. Research also shows that kids who are involved in family and outdoor activities are at a lower risk for developing internet addiction.
But controlled amounts of boredom can have all kinds of positive effects.
Boredom allows kids to be creative.
When you’re bored your mind wanders—and starts to come up with creative ideas and solutions. A recent study showed that people were better at coming up with ideas when they first did a boring activity.
A bored child will have to use his creativity to get “un-bored.”
This applies to you, too, by the way, and not just your kid. Next time you’re in a waiting room or standing in line, try not getting your phone out. You may be surprised at how creative you can be.
A child who is allowed to be bored in a constructive environment learns how to cope with boredom in constructive ways.
When you give your child access to books and creative toys, he’ll learn to find positive outlets for his boredom.
The key here is to make sure your child has access to constructive, engaging outlets for his boredom.
- hands-on games
- art supplies
- even just everyday household objects
My kids have a blast playing with the boxes and jars in the recycling bin. Honestly, it gets to be kind of a mess and sometimes I kind of hate it, but that’s why this isn’t a post on keeping an always neat and tidy house. 😉
My one-year-old has discovered where I keep the potatoes. She puts them in a bag to carry around, pretends she’s cooking them in the pots and pans, and plays that she’s eating them with her plastic fork.
Even with the mess, I do love seeing my kids’ creativity at work. And it really doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to clean up when they’re done.
Free play is key.
When we hyper-schedule our kids’ lives… or even just let them use screens whenever they want to, we prevent them from ever getting bored. It’s way too easy to pick up a screen when you feel the urge and totally zone out.
There’s no boredom or thinking. Just mindlessness.
But when you give your kids access to plenty of non-screen things to do, and they will figure out useful outlets for their boredom.
Another benefit of all this boredom and figuring out how to get un-bored?
Your child will develop a greater sense of confidence.
When he’s successfully figured out what to do, he’ll become more confident in his abilities to do interesting things.
How can you help your child manage boredom productively?
If your kid is used to you or a screen managing his boredom for him, he may need some help at first figuring out how to deal with it himself.
Here’s what you can do.
- Make sure he has easy access to open-ended, creative toys. These don’t have to be expensive—simple is often better. My kids can easily access coloring books, paper, crayons, blocks and building sets, the recycling (HA!), books, toy cars and stuffed animals, and other toys that encourage imagination.
- Give him a creative task. Try something like, “Can you draw me a truck?” or “How tall of a tower can you build with these blocks?”
- Do an activity with him. Work on a puzzle or stack blocks together and gradually encourage more independence in these tasks.
As he gets used to doing these activities instead of always turning to a screen or to you for entertainment, you should find he becomes more independently creative.
Incidentally, this increased independence is the key to reducing screen time without going crazy.
3. I limit my kids’ screen time because screens affect mental development
There’s a reason professionals recommend little-to-no screen time for very young children.
That’s because of the potential effects on a child’s mental development. Let’s talk about some of those effects.
Screen skills don’t transfer over to the real world.
You may think your child is learning about how the world works if he’s playing a block-stacking game on the iPad. But researchers have found that babies who play these kinds of games on a screen have to start all over again when they encounter the same situations in the real world.
Researchers have found similar effects with other skills, even in children as old as 5—although children can remember sequences of events or instructions from videos, they often have difficulty transferring the knowledge to real life.
In some of the relevant studies,
- 2 year olds who were told in a video where a toy was hidden couldn’t find the toy.
- 3 year olds who learned about numbers and biological growth in a video were unable to use their new knowledge.
- 5 years olds who watched the same video as the 3 year olds and played a related game were able to transfer only the knowledge from the video, not the game.
The time your child spends on a screen may be wasted time where he could instead be learning necessary real-life skills.
A child who is staring at a screen is not developing emotional skills
Have you heard of emotional intelligence? Emotional intelligence, or “EQ,” refers to your ability to recognize and manage your own emotions and those of other people.
Its five components are
- Social Skills
Your EQ can affect everything from academic success to your likelihood of developing depression. Children learn these skills—managing their own emotions and interpreting others’ emotions—by interacting with other human beings.
Screen time can remove that human interaction and hinder your child’s emotional development.
Constant movement results in shorter attention spans
Something to keep in mind is that the quality of the content matters just as much as the quantity of screen time. So many children’s shows today have a frenetic feel to them. (Paw Patrol, I’m looking at you!)
Sit a child in front of a constantly changing landscape that doesn’t require him to focus on one thing for any length of time, and what you’ll get is a child who can’t focus for any length of time.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis, the George Adkins Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle, has researched the effects of screen time on children’s attention span. He says that although ADHD has genetic causes, the 10x increase in ADHD from 20 years ago points to other contributing factors. He and other researchers believe that too much screen time may be one of the factors.
This is just me thinking out loud here, but I would suspect that high-activity shows or apps could also cause a child to become frustrated with the slower pace of real life. I wonder if it’s part of the reason children often become grouchy after screen time.
Screens become addictive
Here’s one of the more nefarious sides of screen time: app creators intentionally build addiction into their apps.
Since most free app creators make money off of ads, they make more money when you spend more time in the app.
How do they get you to spend more time on them? By making them addictive.
Their addictive nature is NOT accidental.
This is something to get into another time and another place, but tech companies absolutely know what they are doing. The addiction is intentional.
What concerns me personally about this addictiveness where young children are concerned is that an addiction that starts younger may be harder to break when they get older.
So I believe it’s very important to prevent (or break, if necessary) addiction now before it becomes much more difficult.
Screen time seems to contribute to poor behavior
You’ve noticed it, haven’t you? After your child gets off the tablet he spends the rest of the day cranky, right?
I’ve seen it; moms in the Facebook groups I’m in have talked about. I think we’ve all noticed it.
There could be several reasons:
- The slower pace of real life can be frustrating after a fast-paced game or video.
- Addictive apps cause dopamine rushes. With the dopamine gone, the resulting crash can make your child cranky.
- A child who’s spending too much time with screens may not be spending enough time on physical activity or emotional development, both of which they need for learning to regulate their responses.
- The transition from screen time to non-screen time may have been too abrupt, and children have difficulty with transitions.
4. I limit my kids’ screen time because screen time reduces physical activity
Children. Need. To. Move.
You know how much energy your kid has. Their little bodies are made to move.
And when they’re staring at a screen, that movement isn’t happening. The correlation between obesity and screen time has been well studied and documented.
Kidshealth.org says toddlers should get at least 60 minutes of active play daily, and preschoolers should get at least 120 minutes.
When your child is getting enough movement—running, jumping, swinging—they’ll sleep better, have healthier bodies, and be mentally healthier.
5. I limit my kids’ screen time to reduce their exposure to non-age-appropriate content
There are two pieces to this.
First, the content your child sees may just not be age appropriate.
If, for example, he’s watching a YouTube video, the next recommended video may be something intended for adults.
But even when your child is using an app intended for kids, there may be content on it that’s intended for older kids.
I left my son once watching Curious George on PBS Kids.
I went downstairs to do something else, and when I came back he had navigated to a different show that was way too mature for him.
And that’s not even getting into violent content.
Many of the relevant organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Psychological Association (APA) and others have all stated that violent media causes aggressive behavior in children.
Yes, that’s right–they’re not just correlated; the violent media causes the aggression.
When people watch graphic violence + quick cuts + loud music, they have higher heart and breathing rates, dilated pupils, and their brains exhibit evidence of a fight-or-flight response.
The effects of violent media are:
- becoming desensitized to others’ pain
- fear and anxiety
Second, there are people out there who intentionally create content that is not child-friendly but will still suck a kid in.
You’ve probably heard of the Momo Challenge.
While that whole thing turned out to be an overblown hoax, it is true that people create bizarre, frightening content designed to get past YouTube’s filters.
Their goal is for those videos to show up either in YouTube Kids or as recommended content on children’s videos on the regular version of YouTube.
James Bridle talks about this in his TED Talk.
It’s important to know that crazy people are out there.
And yes, I know as a parent you have enough to worry about without adding one more thing to the list. So here’s how you can setup YouTube Kids to make it safer for your kids.
A final word: screens in the background can affect kids too
Background media (like a television that is on but they’re not watching) is distracting to children and can inhibit their development.
Studies over time have shown that children who are exposed to large amounts of background media have delays in language and cognitive development.
When the content is above their ability to understand, it stresses their brain’s executive function. The executive function is responsible for
- attention and focus
- organization and planning
- emotional regulation
- staying on track
A stressed out executive function makes it harder for them to learn from their surroundings.
Some researchers performed an experiment with baby mice. For 42 days they subjected the mice to 6 hours daily of “mouse TV” full of noises and lights. After giving the mice a 10-day break, they then placed them in an open space.
Normal mice in a space like this will proceed with caution, but the “screen time” mice went crazy–running back and forth across the space with no plan or sense of risk.
Obviously, humans aren’t mice, but when background distraction has such a noticeable effect on animals, it’s worth taking notice and thinking about what effect it may have on us.
Parent-child interactions are also reduced in quantity and quality around background media.
Why I limit my children’s screen time
Because of risks like these, I believe it’s important to make definite screen time rules and limit my kids’ screen time.
Need help setting up your own screen time rules? Take a look at my free email course!