Summertime. It used to a time for children to spend lazy days outside in the sunshine, and as a child I remember many a day spent at a rock quarry near my home, riding my bike to the corner store to buy candy (or occasionally play coin-op video games) and walking through a small forest between our home and my school. The forest featured a reservoir my friends and I considered a "lake," and we used to try to fish (unsuccessfully) or spot otters (which we often did). But there were also many days when my greatest ambition in life was to watch television, and my mother was forever shooing me out of the house and away from the screen. The battle between parents and kids over "screen time" has existed since televisions became common.
That battle intensified when home video game systems proliferated. I remember receiving my first Nintendo game system, and I remember my father yelling at me to stop playing games and join the family outside at the pool. Today's parents have more than 8-bit graphics and cable television with which to contend. Today's parents face a market saturated with smartphones, tablets and notebook computers, all of which make it possible for you kid to stay plugged in no matter where he or she is, every hour your child is awake.
Just last month, Emily Oster claimed that "'screen time' for kids is probably OK." As I've just done, she references her own childhood. Apparently, she considers restrictions on screen time too harsh by the standards most parenting authorities apply. "… I'd say there's absolutely no reason to think there's anything worse about using a screen to do activities you would otherwise do on paper," she writes. "When it comes to passive screen time – TV and movies – it seems that, on average, watching more TV has limited (if any) impacts on test scores, but maybe has some small impacts on obesity among children. However, the key phrase here is 'on average,' and fleshing this out makes clear why the effect of television is such a difficult issue to study. ..."
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Just a few months ago, Technocracy tackled the issue of "screen time" as it affects your children. In this column, I pointed out that "screen time" is of increasing concern to parents and teachers. According to the Pew Research Center, smartphone "penetration" is now over 50 percent among wireless phone users, who routinely used to watch television and movies or read books and magazines. (This is one of the reasons print publications are dying, e-book sales have eclipsed paperback sales, and circulation for paper magazines is falling in favor of online subscriptions.) Athens News contends, "A sedentary lifestyle spent in front of computers and video game consoles contributes to poor health. Of the leading industrialized countries, the United States has the highest obesity statistics, and Canada is not far behind. … Excessive screen time can lead to sleep and eating disorders, interfere with a person's ability to focus and negatively affect a person's performance at school or work."
Encouraging sedentary lifestyles is one obvious downside of "excessive" screen time. The much more insidious problem, however, is, again, the social and developmental changes such devices promulgate. For example, too much screen time can lead, according to some studies, to antisocial behavior and even an increased likelihood of ending up in jail. We've known this for some time. We are, however, only now coming to grips with "social media addiction," in which the compulsion to be connected to social media through one's smartphone or tablet starts to cause behavioral and productivity issues.
"If you breathe a sigh of relief at being reunited with your smartphone after a meeting or feel the constant need to check for updates," writes RealBuzz, "you could probably benefit from a digital detox. … When the habit of looking at your phone feels compulsive, you need to re-evaluate your relationship with social media. … Telltale signs you're a social media addict in the making include: spending hours browsing, sacrificing sleep for social media and checking-in, reporting and uploading photos whenever possible."
Now a new study from the American Academy of Pediatrics has reinforced concerns about excessive screen time and its effects on children. The study indicates that overuse of tablets, smartphones and other devices by children between 2 and 6 years old "can affect sleeping, eating, and paying attention in class," according to Marcel Clarke. The Statesman, referencing the study, asserts that "overuse of digital technology can directly impact the child's overall social and emotional development as it would restrict their exposure to the stimuli in the real world, with a greater preoccupation in the virtual world of technology.
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Another issue relative to screen time for developing kids is the use of smartphones and tablets before bed. Per the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "The use of light-emitting electronic devices for reading, communication, and entertainment has greatly increased recently. ... We found that the use of these devices before bedtime prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep, delays the circadian clock, suppresses levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, reduces the amount and delays the timing of REM sleep, and reduces alertness the following morning. … Overall, we found that the use of portable light-emitting devices immediately before bedtime has biological effects that may perpetuate sleep deficiency and disrupt circadian rhythms, both of which can have adverse impacts on performance, health, and safety."
Against the latest research and still in keeping with the "conventional wisdom" on the topic, excessive screen time is not OK. In young children it is particularly bad, and right before bed it should be avoided completely. This is as true for your kids as it is for their parents. It's time we all took a step back from the devices that run our lives. Absent this perspective, we're dooming ourselves to a future of antisocial adults and maladjusted children, none of whom are getting enough rest. The choice, then, is clear: We can throttle back our dependence on these devices, or we can raise generations of smartphone zombies.
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