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Screen Time: The Glowing Enemy or a Useful Tool?

We’ve all been to the pediatrician’s office and heard the question, “How many hours of screen time does your child get?” We’ve heard the research, so some of us may lie and subtract an hour (or two) from the real answer. As parents, we’ve been told that too much screen time is bad for our children. Experts say it can lead to diminished personal relationships, obesity, and can even affect your child’s brain.  So we feel guilty if we turn on the television to get a few extra minutes to finish cooking dinner or hand our screaming three year old the phone so he will stop crying. But is there really a basis for the claims that screen time harms our children?

Sara DeWitt, an expert in children’s media, argues that there may be some misinformation regarding the effects of screen time and children. In her recent TED Talk, she discusses the components of the debate and tackles whether the fight on screen time is worth all the fuss. DeWitt quickly points out that the obsession with electronics is not something that is isolated to children. In her opening remarks, she mentions that most adults find their personal cell phone to be a necessity and that 40% of them check it within five minutes of waking up. But just as these devices have arguably brought value and increased productivity to adults, she argues the value that can be found in their utilization by children. She even goes as far as to assert that our apprehension in regards to screen time may be causing us to miss a big opportunity.

Emotional Awareness

While advocates of reduced screen time argue that a child’s interpersonal skills and emotional development are hindered by prolonged sessions of TV watching, a counterclaim could be made in regards to the development of these skills. DeWitt references Fred Rogers, of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. She contends that his use of television was revolutionary and enabled children to recognize, evaluate, and discuss feelings. Where a session with Dora the Explorer could be viewed as mindless TV watching, another way to look at it is as an outlet for children to learn about relationships and be able to model and utilize skills and techniques they have observed. The world of television programs continues to grow and expand and provide diverse outlets for children to learn.

Physical and Cognitive Growth

We have an opportunity to utilize media and devices to engage children and not only get their bodies up and moving, but to get their brains working, and learning, and craving information. New apps, games and television shows are being created every day to challenge our children to get up and dance or flap their arms like a bird. These programs allow children to think critically and go outside and apply what they have learned. DeWitt discusses a program at PBS in which children would engage in activities that would teach them about bats and have them flapping their “wings”. Once the activity was done, the children went on to continue to flap and move and think critically about the bats and tie in their adventures to common ideas like how the flight of a bird differs from that of a bat. And as we discuss education, we need to look at the value of what can be gained from educational apps and computer programs. Could these devices provide us with more information about how a child learns and give us a better understanding of what they really know? After all, these applications are so advanced that they are able to analyze the mistakes that children make, where they pause, and the areas that need improvement.

Parent Connectivity

Perhaps one of the biggest concerns parents have about their children and screen time is the fear that these devices can cause a disconnect between themselves and their children. But this fear has been debunked as well. DeWitt shares a beautiful example of what can happen when we use educational apps as a tool to engage with and learn from our children. She tells you to imagine that you hand over the iPad to your toddler while you work on dinner and allow your child to  “play a game”. As you cook, you get alerted to the progress your child is making and are prompted to continue on with what your child is learning. The app gives suggestions as to things you can say to continue on with what they are actively learning, such as “what rhymes with bat”. This program fosters communication, promotes involvement, and gives the opportunity for praise. The very argument of the fear of disconnect is undone by the creative use of learning tools.

It is important to understand the qualities of technology and the devices around us. Before we rely on the common belief that these devices cause harm or hinder the capabilities and potential of our children, we should pause and examine what can be gained. Like everything, it is still advisable to take in media usage in moderation, but we as parents are able to gauge what an appropriate amount of screen time for our children should be. There is a lot to be gained from the ever-changing and ever-growing field of technology. Electronic devices need not be shunned, nor should you feel the need to lie to your pediatrician about screen time. Children have the potential to learn, grow, and build relationships in so many different outlets and we need to recognize each opportunity and embrace them in every realm. As parents, we must use our common sense and find the proper balance between our children’s devices and other activities. Contact us to continue the discussion and find out more about screen time and its impact.