When I was a kid, I watched TV all the time. We had a TV in the kitchen so we watched while we ate dinner. I was a latchkey kid, so I came home from school every day and turned on after-school shows and watched for hours and hours. The TV was a permanent fixture in my life. It was always on in at least one room and chances were good that someone was watching it.
And let’s not even talk about video games. The original Nintendo was a staple, even my mom helped save the princess a time or two.
I was definitely not an anomaly. My entire generation grew up with Nickelodeon, MTV, Super Mario Brothers, and Mortal Kombat. No one thought twice about TV. It wasn’t controversial and our parents were certainly never judged for letting us have “screen time.”
In the last 30 years, parenting has changed so much that it’s become a verb instead of a noun. My parents, the ones who never thought twice about letting us watch TV and play Nintendo, don’t even recognize the parenting we do today. For modern parents, the constant expectation to be Pinterest-perfect, the multitude of different parenting “styles”, and the ever-changing study data and “rules” for what is and isn’t good for our kids can create the perfect storm of stress and anxiety.
“Children today get less sleep than their predecessors and it’s likely that digital media is a contributing factor. More time at night on the screen along with the stimulating nature of the technology and the very content of the programs will lead to less time sleeping.”
— Raun D. Melmed, MD, FAAP, a developmental pediatrician
Back then, screen time pretty much only happened in the house. Our screens were reserved for our televisions and, later, our computers. The idea that in 25 or 30 years, we’d be walking around with a tiny magic screen in our pockets that allows us to watch any show we can think of while accessing the collected knowledge of the entire history of the world and laugh at funny cat videos, would have seemed like science fiction.
But those magic screens — futuristic or not — have changed the parenting world as we know it. Screens are an easy distraction for a wailing toddler in a restaurant but also a convenient way to get after-school tutoring for school-aged kids and a must-have networking tool for high schoolers. Kids rely on screens for development a whole lot more than they used to.
Our kids are digital natives
Born into the tech revolution, the current generation of children is introduced to tech and digital media from fairly early on, sometimes at birth. They’ll be infinitely more familiar and more comfortable with tech than their parents.
This inevitable divide fits, according to Moore’s law, which is the idea that technology doubles or advances within two years of its development. When our children are adults, they may think of us the way some of us think of our parents trying to figure out Facebook or texting. We’ll seem like Luddites to them.
Technology marches on at an unrelenting pace and parents are torn between the knowledge that children need access to tech and space to learn and the fear that tech will interfere with “normal” childhood.
But what does this early introduction to tech mean for their development? How does the way they parse information change them? Are screens hurting the way they grow up or could screens be helping them?
There’s no denying that screens have an impact on a child’s development. Toddlerhood is a critical time for learning from movement and their environment. Environmental stimuli are critical. If a child, especially a very young child like a toddler, is focused on screens and media for extended periods of time, there will be developmental repercussions. Screen time is also usually sedentary time, so the more a child is using a device or playing games, the less time they’re moving and exercising.
Another concern is the effect on sleep and quality of sleep. Dr. Raun D. Melmed, a developmental pediatrician in Scottsdale, Arizona, cautions, “Children today get less sleep than their predecessors and it’s likely that digital media is a contributing factor. More time at night on the screen along with the stimulating nature of the technology and the very content of the programs will lead to less time sleeping.” And these can result in overall health concerns as well. “Poor quality and inadequate sleep can result in inefficient cognitive processing, mood liability, irritability, and sluggishness. Not to mention its impact on diet and weight gain,” says Melmed.
Screens aren’t all bad. They aren’t going to turn our children into a generation of unsocialized zombies. But they aren’t all good either.
Conversely, digital media has helped foster the ability for kids today to parse information very quickly. The ability to recognize what’s happening on a screen and categorize it in your brain and react appropriately is more pronounced in young people than in older people. Reaction times are quicker. The ability to discard what’s unnecessary and move on quickly and efficiently is becoming a prized skill in work environments. And because of digital media and games and scrolling through news feeds and search results, our kids have the uncanny ability to do it very quickly.
Of course, if you let a toddler stare at a screen all day, there will be problems. If your 7-year-old spends more time on the couch playing video games than she does playing outside with other kids, there are going to be some issues. But handing your toddler a phone so they can watch Daniel Tiger while you buy groceries isn’t going fry their brain or ruin their chances at life.
The rules for screen time have changed so frequently over the last few years that parents are in a tailspin trying to decide what’s safe and what isn’t. This is all while they’re running the gauntlet of other people’s judgments.
Moderation is key: Screens aren’t all bad. They aren’t going to turn our children into a generation of unsocialized zombies. But they aren’t all good either.
The rules of screen time are always changing, so focus on quality
For many years the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended zero screens at all for kids under the age of two. That included everything from iPads to Skype sessions with Grandma. People felt that was a little unreasonable considering the prevalence of screens. Parents felt the pressure, from other parents and the well-meaning peanut gallery, to raise screen-free toddlers. It caused heated debate on both sides, with heaps of guilt laid down by everyone.
Finally, in 2016 the AAP changed the rule and approved some digital media for toddlers 18 months and older. Video chats no longer counted as negative screen time for babies and toddlers under 18 months.
Similarly, parents are frequently told that screen time can cause ADHD. Dr. Melmed suggests instead that children who have ADHD are more likely uniquely positioned to be “vulnerable and more susceptible to excessive and problematic screen time use.” Melmed says, “Children with ADHD can over-focus on highly stimulating tasks making disengagement and transitioning to a more mundane task that much more difficult.” This difficulty with transitions can result in the tantrums and meltdowns that are frequently, if errantly, associated with behavior issues caused by digital media, but which are actually a hallmark of ADHD.
Turns out, like most everything, it’s the quality that’s important. Hours of Peppa Pig or toy videos on YouTube are to development as what fast food meals are to health: suboptimal. It’s important that parents are active participants in their young children’s media consumption and choose quality programs and games for their kids. But tired, frazzled, overwrought parents can rest assured that 15 to 20 minutes of Octonauts or even Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is not going ruin your child’s brain.
Modern parents have enough to worry about without adding guilt over reasonable screen time. Using common sense and making quality choices are the most important factors. Any parent who’s actively concerned with the effect of screen time on their kid’s development isn’t the kind of parent that’s going to let their 2 year old veg out for hours or their teen drift into loneliness and depression at the hands of a smartphone and social media accounts. An engaged parent is the first step in moderating tech overuse.
So, stop worrying so much about screen time, folks, and use that extra time to pack lunches, find missing shoes, answer ten thousand questions, and clean the pee off the floor around the toilet.
Kristi is a freelance writer and mother who spends most of her time caring for people other than herself. She’s frequently exhausted and compensates with an intense caffeine addiction. Find her on Twitter.