Monday, January 24, 2011

What I Think About Screens and Children

Final topic from the On Parenting post I wrote two months ago. Phew! I am happy to be finishing what I started.

This topic is a big one for me, because I have a lot to say about it. I have a lot to say about it because I am passionate about child development and I have seen a fair bit of screen addiction in my life. I also have several children, many of whom would like nothing more than to spend their time playing video games. Or watching movies. Or playing on the iPad. Watching television would definitely be in that list if we subscribed to cable or satellite, and for two full years we have lived without traditional "TV".

Why I don't LIKE screens: (that much)

Screen use is addictive. Watching television stimulates the brain in ways that I consider habit forming, much like a drug. Playing video games is even more stimulating to the brain and likely even more habit forming. Anecdotally, that seems to be the case at least.

A young child's brain develops very rapidly and that development is essentially "connections". The physical growth of the brain in the earliest years is mylenization - fatty substance that coats neuron pathways to make connections faster. The connections that are made faster by this process are the connections that are being used.

I feel confident in believing that a young child watching a lot of television versus a young child that is spending time away from screens will develop a very different brain. The neural pathways being activated and strengthened in those crucial years (brain growth slows with age, afterall) will be categorically different.

Television is successful because it holds our attention by stimulating the brain. I believe one of the ways television stimulates the brain is by overloading parts of it to the point that it "shuts down". This is why, from my experience, children and adults with attention issues will become MORE engrossed with television than more typical children, and why more typical children become active and perhaps even hyper when watching TV. Like ritalin (a stimulant), which works on the ADD brain by overloading it to the point of shutdown, and on the non-ADD brain, it makes the child hyperactive.

Further to that, I believe that it's likely that the young child's brain watching TV develops to BE more inattentive and that you can create attentional "problems" by spending a lot of time watching TV. These are all my own theories, not based on research (although the research may be out there), and I am sharing these theories because they have helped me make sense of TV and video games.

Handheld screen devices make it really easy for kids to use video games much more frequently. Have you ever been out to a restaurant and seen a school aged child at a table, playing on a DS? It bothers me. It bothers me because I really think that child (and the family) are missing out on spending a meal together, talking. I think the child is missing out on learning how to wait patiently and enjoy a meal with other people and experience a restaurant outing. It's a life skill.

Granted, odds are in 20 years everywhere we might have to wait (bus shelter, bank line, grocery checkout) will have a screen there blasting information and commercials and mind numbing stuff at us to turn off our brains.

The same goes for TV in vehicles. How much time did you spend, as a child, surveying the countryside and the city alike, from the window of a car? Using an onboard TV for a trip sounds like a great way to break up a long drive. But I really wonder happens to the children who use one almost every car trip and never spend time "bored" and resorting to.. thinking, talking, observing.. to pass time.

My Last point on screens = kinda bad: anytime spent with a screen is time that would have been spent doing *something else*

We Need Screens Anyways:

Like it or not, (and obviously "we" like it, given that we're using a screen right now AND much of the world is interacting with them daily) screens will continue to be an increasing part of our lives. Our children will continually be exposed to them, and they will be using them in ways we can't even imagine in just a few short years.

Our kids need to know how to use a computer.

Our kids will need to have an (almost) innate understanding of how to operate controls and electronic systems that develops from use of these tools.

The amount of time a television is on varies greatly from family to family. I know many families have their TV on pretty much all day, even when nobody is watching it. There are those of us that basically keep it off all the time (until recently), and there is a wide variation in between. My husband decided in October we needed Netflix and now my youngest two children are fully aware of the infinite access to Dora and Diego and Caillou, Rugrats, etc., etc that Netflix provides. I get nagged to watch these shows while I am home with my children for just about the whole day and I have asked (repeatedly :) ) if we could cancel this subscription! (I hate being nagged).

This is what I do about screens:

Movies, Netflix, video games, etc. buy me bliss. Quiet time where the kids are happy and I can get something else done. I am sure Cole can go hours and hours and hours without food or drink if he's in front of a screen (and that scares me!). Kids are all different, some really don't *want* to spend a lot of time watching TV (but those same children may enjoy passing hours and hours playing video games).

Getting rid of cable was an awesome decision. The downside to it : we aren't really in the loop for "that new commercial" or really, any of the hit TV shows. We never really watched TV when we had it, though. Other than flip that house. I still like watching house flipping shows. I am strange :)

The upside: my big kids spend a whole lot of time reading, drawing, cartooning, building with lego, playing with toys, playing with eachother. The reading is the most obvious change when we entered No-TV land - they choose to spend a LOT of time reading.

Video games are another story. My kids love video games. I dislike being nagged. I put a lot of thought into how my children develop throughout childhood and I am stubborn. Really stubborn. Unlike TV shows, video games are available to our older children. We have a Wii and a PS3. We have games for them and we used to get asked nonstop to play.

I find what works best for everyone (except maybe in the opinion of my children) is to NOT have a set time available to play video games. I really don't think having something like "30 minutes a day" works for my children. I don't actually want them playing everyday, and they would be cranky after only 30 minutes. I believe to enjoy a video game you NEED 1 or 2 hours with it. I don't want them playing everyday for that length of time, and between school, homework, dinner, chores, karate, there isn't a couple hours in the day for them to do it anyways... and I don't need battles about a shorter period of time. I don't even want them playing "every Saturday" or something similar, because the desire to play is so strong they would be miserable and grouchy with us if we were busy on a particular Saturday and they missed "their time".

Have I mentioned I dislike being nagged?

So, video game time is random in our house and it works for us. I believe in my original post, I used the term "sparingly". It is random, infrequent, but when we say "yes" or even suggest they go ahead and get on a game, we let them play for several hours. I find this treats video games as more of an "event" like going out to a movie or bowling or swimming, rather than an expectation or routine. We use movies and netflix the same way for them and it seems to work really well.


  1. This just showed up in my feed! :)

    Good plan. We *do* have tv - but it's very easy to turn off. ;) We also don't have set video game/computer time.

    I hear you on the nagging!! I also loathe whining. That's a good way to get the opposite of what you want. ;)

  2. Have you seen the commercial... lol, well that was a silly way to start this comment.
    Okay, so there is a commercial, I think it's for a car. It shows four kids in the backseat of an SUV-type vehicle. One is watching a movie, one is playing a portable-DS type game... One is listening to music on an mp3 player. Hm, maybe there's only three kids.. lol
    ANYWAY. The commercial's point is "look how great this vehicle is, because there's all these plug in ports, and look how calm Mom & Dad are in the front seat, because all of their children are totally disconnected and not bothering them at all"
    And I think it is the stupidest commercial ever. Like, really, has our society become such that children playing "I spy" in the car, or talking about a trip so TERRIBLE that they must be silenced and "tuned out" all the time?