What Our Kids are Missing While They Stare at Their Screens

There are pros and cons to growing up as the daughter of two clinical psychologists. Pro: Listening to them dissect the behavior of people around me made me an emotionally attuned, empathetic person. Con: No video games.

“Atari turns your brain to mush.” That’s what they told me and my little brother, the lone kids on the block who couldn’t hold our own during Ms. Pac-Man tournaments in our friends’ basements, joysticks slipping around in our unpracticed hands like sticks of butter. It wasn’t until recently, as I began reading the emerging body of research regarding the effects of screen time on the young brain, that I realized my parents had given me a gift. 
Over time, technology has infiltrated nearly every aspect of our daily lives. Simply telling kids to go outside and play seems quaint in a society where phones don’t have cords and the world is one big Wifi-inclusive zone. Yet a study published earlier this year in JAMA Pediatrics found a negative relationship between the amount of time children spent on screens and their performance on a developmental screening assessment. As accessible and omnipresent as technology is to children, the reality is that prolonged screen usage has long-term effects on child development. 

The Importance of Play
One way screen time harms the young brain is it has replaced unstructured, free play as the core pastime of childhood. Play isn’t only important for physical fitness; it’s the most important cognitive activity kids can do. Children practice stamina when they engage in an extended imaginative play scenario, and this stamina later translates into focus for academic tasks in school. During free play, children pretend cardboard boxes are race cars and blocks are houses. This symbolism preps a child’s mind to understand letters are symbols representing sounds and words act as stand-ins for ideas. During free play, children develop complex games of tag with rules and objectives. This practice at planning provides the groundwork for science fair projects and writing computer code.

Social Communication Practice
Although older children increasingly use social media and texting to communicate with peers, technology cannot replicate the social practice kids receive through face-to-face interactions. These interactions teach children how to work in groups, cooperate to accomplish a goal, communicate for understanding, and advocate for themselves. By interacting with other children, kids discover what they like or don’t like in a friend. They learn to read feelings from facial expressions and realize facial expressions don’t always match words. Finally, while status updates and photos can be edited and deleted, in-person interactions happen in fractions of seconds. Kids need practice thinking on their feet to communicate and solve conflicts so they can navigate the more complex social situations they will encounter in adulthood.

Reading and Empathy
Before tablets and cell phones, activity choices available to children were limited, increasing the likelihood that a child would pick up a book. Many times we think only about the academic benefits of readingdecoding and comprehension or learning new information from a nonfiction textbut the benefits don’t stop there. Reading is integral to developing empathy. Trading a book in favor of a video game controller creates a social skills double whammy: Not only are kids losing face-to-face peer interaction, but they’re also losing insight into other cultures and lives that reading can provide. This impedes a child’s ability to relate to others and understand that humanity comprises a gamut of perspectives, stories, and ideologies, reinforcing thatdespite differenceswe have similar needs and desires.

Screen Time Tips
So you’ve decided you want to reduce your child’s screen usage, but where should you start? Breaking harmful technology habits can be difficult because they are ingrained in our daily routines. First, lead by example. If you’re not going to let your teenagers use their phone during family meals, you need to follow the same rule yourself. I’ve also worked with families who have digital-free time blocked off daily or weekly in their homes. This is an opportunity for everyone to do something together like take a walk or play a board game. 

Another more flexible option is to figure out how long you want your children to use technology and work backward. The Centers for Disease Control recommends limiting school-age children to no more than one to two hours of screen time per day. If you want to limit your children to an hour of screen time, allow them to earn a certain number of minutes for every chore completed from a list (or other target behavior). Just make sure the number of minutes they can earn does not exceed one hour.

Second, make monitoring content easier by removing computers and televisions from bedrooms and confiscating cell phones at least one hour before bedtime. This also ensures that your child gets an adequate night’s sleep. Because you can’t possibly oversee your child’s technology usage all of the time, I recommend using a parental control app such as FamilyTime or Web Watcher that allows you to set time limits, block content, and monitor messaging and social media. 

Finally, assuming your child is old enough to understand, explain to him or her why you’re making the change. For a younger child, this might sound like, “Watching videos on Youtube can be fun, but watching too much can hurt your brain and make it harder for you to pay attention in school.” Having an honest conversation about technology will increase buy-in and make any new restrictions easier for your child to accept. While it’s unlikely your kids will thank you for limiting their screen time any day soon, one day (with a little perspective) they just might. 

By Nissa Reynolds
Dean of Student Services

The Alexander Dawson School

The Alexander Dawson School at Rainbow Mountain, an independent school located on 33-acres in the community of Summerlin, is Nevada’s first Stanford University Challenge Success partner school for students in early childhood through grade eight. Utilizing the unique Challenge Success framework, Dawson uses research-based strategies and programs that emphasize student academics, wellbeing, and a healthy school-life balance to create more engaged, motivated, and resilient learners and leaders. At Dawson, students achieve their individual potential while savoring life and meeting the challenges of the world.