Screens are everywhere—technology has changed our lives, and it is having new and unpredictable impacts on our children.
Infants and young children learn by observing and interacting with their environment. They smile, you smile. They coo or say a word, you talk back to them. They drop a toy and you pick it up again, and again, and again…. Screens are not responsive to children in the way that people and some other objects in the environment are. Whether it is a ball that rolls off the table or a parent imitating the child’s gestures in a back and forth manner, it is important for children to be learning rules about how the world works and learning to make sense of their environment. Being over-involved in screens takes time away from these activities and children miss out on learning opportunities.
In a similar way, young children learn many social skills early in their life, and social interactions build upon each other. Babies learn early on how to elicit reactions from people—by smiling, making eye contact, and imitating the actions of others. When they engage in these behaviors, the world becomes friendlier, more predictable, and an exciting place to explore. What happens when they smile at an ipad? Nothing. Children who are spending a lot of time using screens are losing out on opportunities to acquire these social skills, or are not having as many opportunities to practice these social skills, which leads these areas to be underdeveloped.
Additionally, children learn from an early age a balance of patience versus instant gratification. Screens provide constant instant gratification, with the lights, colors, and often fact-paced action. Many apps and games have a variable style of reinforcement, which, similar to slot machines in a casino, are extremely addictive. Patience is not an innate ability but an acquired skill that takes practice, and children who get constant instant gratification do not have opportunities to learn patience, potentially resulting in behavior problems in other areas. Another skill which is affected by overuse of entertainment is creativity. Creativity develops when kids are bored. And boredom is something that all of us seem to be experiencing less and less of—when you have a phone in your pocket, or you can cue up whatever show you want on tv without having to wait through any commercials, the idea of waiting and downtime becomes almost intolerable for many.
There has been some research on how screen time affects young children, but all of this is correlational. Scientists are not able to randomly assign children to either watch a bunch of TV or not, so it can be difficult to know what is a direct result of screen time versus a risk factor that may actually lead to more screen time. Regardless of what comes first, studies have shown excessive TV viewing is linked to the inability to pay attention and think clearly, poor eating habits and behavioral problems. Higher amounts of screen time are also associated with language delays, poor sleep, impaired executive function, and a decrease in parent-child engagement.
I think what is extra tricky about screen time is that it seems like it works so well for kids, including those with behavior problems and attention problems. It’s almost like magic. Rather than arguing or whining or throwing a tantrum they are just sitting quietly and not causing any problems. I know you have all see those families in restaurants where kids are each on their own device and honestly, sometimes the parents are too, and no one is even acknowledging each other. The problem is that for kids who are extra difficult, whether they have learning or attention or behavior difficulties, it can be a very slippery slope to more and more screen time, because the kids and the parents both know what will happen when the parent says time to put it away, and they don’t want to deal with the consequence. And so these most vulnerable kids, who arguably need the MOST attention and one on one support, are sometimes getting some of the least.
A study in 2019 scanned the brains of children 3 to 5 years old and found those who used screens more than the recommended one hour a day without parental involvement had lower levels of development in the brain’s white matter — an area key to the development of language, literacy and cognitive skills.
As kids get older, it gets more complicated. Rather than videos and play-based apps, pre-teens and teenagers spend more and more time on social media, where popularity and social connections are out there for everyone to see. Social media can be like a drug, where both kids and adults strive to get posts for more and more likes, or they can be evidence of being left out in a way that was never so visible and obvious before. I don’t know about you, but I am glad I didn’t grow up with social media. And I’m already worrying about how it’s going to affect my daughters. It’s one thing to find out on Monday that you didn’t get invited to a party that took place over the weekend. It’s quite another to see picture after picture uploaded on Facebook or Instagram, or whatever is the newest, hottest thing at the moment that you are being excluded. Bullying can take place in both subtle and overt ways, and what is especially problematic is that the bullies don’t even see the impact of their actions in a way that may lead to any change. Part of developing empathy is seeing how people react to our actions. When people can say whatever they want without any view of how that impacts their target, they may say even more the next time.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A CDC study found that teen suicide jumped 56% from 2007 to 2017. Many family members of teens lost to suicide talk about the impact social media had on their loved one. It’s not all just bullying either. Part of the danger of the internet is that you can find whatever you are looking for—whether the perfect recipe for mashed potatoes, how to change the oil on your car, or, on a more negative side, how to fool your family into believing you don’t have an eating disorder or how to complete a successful suicide. As adults, we—most of us—have the sense to think critically about what we are learning, and not follow a rabbit hole that will lead to things we do not want to know. But teenagers are still learning and maturing, and sometimes they can have a very difficult time seeing past the struggles they are feeling at a particular moment.
All this being said, there are lots of negative aspects to screen time and social media, but there are also lots of great positives. There are wonderful groups and communities where people can support one another and find connections that may not be available locally. It’s just like any other ‘new technology’ we as humans have developed over time—fire, automobiles, electricity—all have the capacity to help us tremendously but also the ability to destroy us if used inappropriately.
Knowing all of this, we are working against teams of people who are researching exactly how to keep kids as engaged for as long as they possibly can. These are very smart people with lots of resources, and they are good at what they do. And it’s not just what we tell our kids—it’s also what we are showing them—since kids learn even more from what they observe than from what we tell them.
None of us is perfect. But I implore you to think about how you use technology in your home, not only what the rules for your children are, but what rules you have for yourself. There are tremendous opportunities with the internet, but also significant risks. If you don’t choose your boundaries, someone else will, and they will not necessarily have your best interest at heart.