With this new age of technology, “screen time” is really a hot button issue. People seem to fall on one side or the other, either absolutely against technology for children or technology is the end all be all. As I find with most things in life, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. I can see the merits of both sides, however, in my professional life I mostly see the downfalls of overexposure to technology. There are many young children who are not able to pay attention, sit still, transition from one activity to another or regulate their bodies and emotions. Of course there are many possible causes to these issues, however, one thing that I have noticed that they all have in common is that they spend lots of time in front of the television, video games, I-phone or I-pad aka “screen time.” I do not discount that many of these children are probably very “busy” biologically to begin with and screen time is one of the ways that gives poor old Mom or Dad a break, but when meeting with parents I always argue that putting children in front of a screen is a quick fix and later in the day, week, month, they will pay for that “screen time.” I have seen the effects of television first hand with my own children. The amount of television they watch is inversely proportional to their behavior.
When is it too much screen time?
Source: Flickr/ Jim Champion
Let me explain, most of the research coming out of Harvard and Yale has been focusing on the brain and how the brain is structured and developed. In the 1990’s Italian researchers discovered mirror neurons. Using monkeys, the researchers found that the same part of the brain (down to a single neuron) is activated when one performs an action as well as when one watches an action being performed by another. Mirror neurons prove why we learn so well through mimicry and why we are able to empathize. We are literally hard-wired for it. More and more lately I have noticed in my daughter’s play and her interaction with her brother that she copies me down to minute details, my speech patterns, even my mannerisms. Children need partners in their social emotional development. Social emotional development includes emotional self-regulation, empathy, paying attention, making friends, cooperating with others, following rules and transitioning from one activity to another. (Track your child’s social-emotional development with this helpful chart from PBS, http://www.pbs.org/wholechild/abc/social.html) These social emotional skills cannot be learned through any type of technology. The only way one learns these skills is through personal one to one social interaction.
Many people disregard the importance of social emotional development, however, its development is critical to any type of higher learning. The brain’s structure is hierarchical. The best metaphor I have heard is to use your hand as a model for the brain. Look at the inside of your hand and think of the part from your wrist to the base of your thumb as the brain stem or “primitive brain” which forms first. Then cross your thumb over towards the middle of your palm, that is the midbrain which houses one’s fight or flight responses and also stores old memories. Finally, fold your fingers over your thumb that is the cortex. The cortex is the only place where problem solving and self-control happen. What happens if a child or adult becomes anxious or angry? When a child or adult becomes angry or anxious (flip your fingers up), the “midbrain” takes over or your fight versus flight responses and old memories. This is referred to as “flipping your lid.” It is not an easy task to try to teach, to reason with or to problem solve with someone who has “flipped his/her lid.” I see children all the time at work that are constantly “flipping their lids” because they never learned how to self-regulate. I actually think technology is an obstacle in a child’s social emotional development. Things like television, video games, apps, etc. are continually stimulating the child’s brain, however, the child has no output for all of that stimulation, so the child is not able to regulate him/herself. The only visual I can think of to explain this process is continuously filling up a balloon with air to the point that it can no longer withstand all of the input so as the air is released the balloon begins “crazily” bouncing off of the walls and floor. It is the same for children with technology there is constant stimulation without any release. Hence, the larger number of children who have symptoms similar to “ADHD.” When a child is interacting with another child or another adult there is a two-way exchange happening, so that some of the energy can be released through the social interaction, and the child can regulate himself/herself as well as learn other skills.
Hold your hand up like this to make a model of your brain.
Source: Flickr/ Eleonora Carrus
Hand (September Photoshoot)
So how do you change your family’s “screen time” habits? First of all I think the first step is to think about your own “screen time” habits. What were the rules around television, movies, computers or video games when you were growing up? Did you have any rules or was technology viewed as a right rather than a privilege? How do you use technology now? Is the television always on as background noise or are you discriminating in which shows you watch? Do you turn on the television or look at your phone for social media or email when you are bored instead of picking up a book or newspaper/magazine, engaging in a hobby, calling a friend, or playing with your children? Do you put any limits on your own “screen time?” Since children learn by watching they are observing your habits as well so a good place to start is changing your own habits before working on your children’s habits. After you decide what kind of rules you want around “screen time,” then it simply takes commitment.
I did a little experiment this week myself as I was thinking about what I was going to write. I am guilty of telling myself I cannot get anything done unless I put the television on for my children. That is only partly true. So this week my experiment was not turning on the television in the morning. I like to sleep in a bit and I often put the television on for my children so I can sleep in ten or twenty more minutes (Mommy confessions, ha). However, this week I did not put the television on. I still slept in a little bit, but it was not a disaster! My children played together and we were actually on time this week, no rushing. My children got ready and ate breakfast faster than on the mornings when I keep the television on. We were on our own timetable instead of the televisions, and there were no distractions. I find when the television is on at times my children become “zoned in” and are not aware of anything else around them including me.
The answer lies in committing to turning off the “screens” and again, routines. I have learned so much from working in a school. Children’s behavior improves at school because they are engaged and they know exactly what to expect. They do the same thing everyday, yet there are so many things going on. Make your home the same way. Infants to preschoolers do not need much to be entertained. They mostly love spending any sort of time with their caregivers. Some activities are drawing, making collages, painting, dramatic or imaginative play, reading books, cooking or baking, taking walks, running around outside, playing catch, exploring, dancing, singing, board games like Memory or Candy land or games like “Simon says,” “I spy,” “What’s Missing?” or “What time is it Mr. Fox?” to name a few. You can also make games out of everyday chores as well. My daughter likes to help me sort the laundry. It is entertaining to her and she is learning about colors and sorting. When I have to vacuum we pretend the vacuum is a shark or alligator and it tries to “eat” my children. It takes a little longer to get my cleaning done, but they are usually laughing and having a good time.
When my children do watch television or movies, I am always in the room watching it with them. Children usually have many questions about what is going on throughout the program. I answer their questions and we talk about the show or movie. I am also very discriminating in my television choices. Almost every show now has a rating, which is great. For example, there is a rating of Y-7 which means the television show is for children seven years or older, not for four year olds. Mainly what is appropriate for preschoolers is “G.” I like PBS kids, Disney Junior, and Sprout the best. I press the “info” button to find out the rating normally or it appears on the upper left corner of the screen. I also watch the shows with my children because I want them to have my values, not the values of the people writing the shows. I will tell them, “Mommy does not like that,” or “We do not do that in our house,” or I might ask them what the character could have done instead. Preschoolers can begin to understand that there are different rules for different places. I may be in the minority, but I actually prefer movies or DVDs to television shows. When we are going to have any “screen time” I prefer Disney movies or educational DVDs we borrow from the library which I watch with them as well. Even after watching shows or movies many times they still have lots of questions. I like movies and DVDs because there are no commercials, and they are time-limited. The television sometimes has the habit of staying on longer than you want when it goes from one show to the next. I also find that my children begin to act out the movie. They do not sit down, glued to the screen. They will watch for a little bit and then they either sing with or act out what is happening on the screen, releasing some of that pent up energy.
Get on the floor and be silly!
Funny Face – Day 5/365
The real danger surrounding the use of technology or “screen time” is that frequently the child is left in isolation with the screen. We as parents need to get something done or we just need a break and it is easier to put a child in front of a screen, but is it? Turn off the screens and let children play together and be social. I cannot help but think that the increase in mass shootings and incidences of bullying in the United States has something to do with the increase of screen time. More screen time leads to more isolation and less empathy.