Alarmism is Taking a Toll on Dialogue About Screen Time and Kids

by Parent Co. July 11, 2015

silhouette of a young and older person looking at a screen all a cartoon

Jane Brody’s New York Times article “Screen Addiction Is Taking a Toll on Children" has parents and caregivers of kids talking. And screaming. It's another high-profile salvo in the debate over kids and screen time. Most parents will instinctively agree with the author's basic argument: "Heavy use of electronic media can have significant negative effects on children’s behavior, health and school performance." But the overall alarmist tone of the article takes us further away from a more balanced, useful conversation on this important topic.

Polarized Opinions & Incomplete Data

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time to two hours per day for kids over 2 years old (with no screen time for kids younger than 2). Some parents (and probably most kids) think that's far too little screen time. Others think two hours a day is way too much - including some tech company CEOs who strictly limit their kids from using screens in their homes. Many studies find that limiting screen time benefits kids' health. For example, this study published in JAMA Pediatrics from Iowa State University found that when parents monitored and limited their kids’ screen time, those kids were less obese, got more sleep, were less aggressive, and had better social behavior and academic performance after seven months. (More on this study here.) There's a large amount of evidence that kids are more sedentary now than in the past. Weight gained in childhood from sedentary behavior and diet becomes increasingly difficult for kids to lose as they get older. However, there's plenty of research showing positive benefits when kids use technology. For example, this study found that iPads in the classroom made children more cooperative and helped quieter kids participate. And maybe tech doesn't disrupt kids' brains as much as we think. On Mindshift, Dr. Gary Small (neuroscientist, professor and director of the Longevity Center at UCLA) said “Young people are born into technology, and they’re used to using it 24/7. Their brains are wired to use it elegantly.” In a separate interview with the New York Times, he also said “We really don’t know the full neurological effects of these technologies yet. Children, like adults, vary quite a lot, and some are more sensitive than others to an abundance of screen time.” Either way, parents don't need to rely on research and studies to make realistic, healthy technology guidelines for our kids. (Which can be problematic, as we'll explore in our next post.) Our own common sense is a powerful tool for helping kids develop a healthy relationship with technology. Also, I don't think that parents are really that confused or divided on this topic. I believe that most parents can agree on ten things about screen time and kids:
  1. Nothing is more important than our kids' well-being.
  2. Technology and screen time is a fact of modern life, fundamental to participating in our economy.
  3. Technology can play both positive and negative roles in kids' lives.
  4. Not all screen time is created equal; some is creative and productive; other screen time is passive and consumptive.
  5. Kids best learn language, social cues, and how interact with other people via real-world social relationships.
  6. Because every kid is different, screen time helps and harms kids in different ways. In special circumstances, some kids need screens to best take part in the world, while others can develop addictive behavior.
  7. Children share the same basic biology and go through similar developmental phases as they mature into adults.
  8. Because of their rapidly developing minds and bodies, younger kids are most vulnerable to negative consequences of excess screen time.
  9. An overly sedentary lifestyle is dangerous to kids' health.
  10. Too much of anything is a bad thing for any human being.
It's easy to feel alarmist about kids and technology, especially with clickbait headlines feeding that alarm. But debating from extremes isn't productive. Most of us agree much more than we disagree on this topic. Let's use our common ground to engage in calmer, richer conversations about the best ways to equip our kids for the technology-driven world we all inhabit.


Parent Co.

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