My daughter loves to watch TV. I think most children do. If ‘eating vegetables’ or ‘cleaning up’ were as riveting, the world would probably be a much better place.
The examples we set
I have a master’s degree in computer science and I work as a software developer. In my spare time I write stories and I like to play video games. And then I read the news from my tablet these days, and also like to watch the occasional Netflix or movie. Basically, I spend at least half of my time behind a screen.
So it isn’t really that surprising that my daughter would come into contact with tablets, smartphones, and televisions. The question is: is that good or bad?
On the one hand, video game addiction was acknowledged as a disease by the World Health Organization, and we all feel in our gut that children need to play outside. On the other, I spend a lot of time behind a screen and I’m happy and healthy, with a well-paying job as a software developer. Also, I’ve talked before about how parents live under a lot of undeserved pressure these days.
So, let’s look at some of these purported effects of screen time on children.
There are studies that link screen time to obesity. The idea is simple: you sit behind a screen a lot, you’re more likely to become fat. Less exercise is unhealthy in general. This study links each hour of extra screen time to a higher BMI score and chance of obesity in children.
With one caveat. This only applies to children who have at least one obese parent. This seems to prove that obesity has a genetic component. That, or obese also teach their children bad eating habits. Of course, being slender doesn’t equal being healthy in any case.
Looking at objects close to your eyes for extended periods of time will fatigue your eyes. This strain can eventually lead to nearsightedness. Too much screen time is bad that way, for children as well as adults.
Of course, there are a lot of other factors in play. Genetics being one of them. Switching from screen time to study time won’t help, because the effect is the same. Playing outside might be the answer.
Finally there is a growing amount of evidence that blue light is damaging to the eyes, and can cause macular degeneration. Mostly in older people, actually, but it adds up over time, so starting young might hurt children eighty years down the line.
Fine motor skills
Studies have shown that children who spend more time behind a screen have worse fine motor skills. Again, the link is pretty straight-forward: a child who spends less time using their hands to develop their fine motor skills and watches a screen instead will have worse fine motor skills.
It gets worse, screen time has been linked to Attention Deficit Disorder. Children are more likely to have attention problems if they spend more than 30 minutes a day behind a screen.
Screen time benefits
Okay, is there any benefit to screen time then?
Well… a little. For example, iPads work better than drugs for calming children before surgery.
Note that as children age, benefits of things like gaming do start to appear. I myself learned to speak English from television and video games. It improved my hand-eye coordination and these days it helps me keep track of a plethora of moving objects while I’m driving through heavy traffic.
But in young children… not so much.
How we handle things
The short summary of the above things is clear: lots of screen time is bad.
We try to limit the time our daughter spends behind the screen. Of course, that’s pretty hard when she can operate the electronics herself, or when she’s been annoying us for hours and demanding to watch some Netflix kids show.
When you keep phones, tables, and televisions away from children completely, you might manage to avoid all the negative things I described above. However, if you use all these devices yourself you’re not going to manage that, I think. And maybe you shouldn’t. Not all the time anyway. For better or worse, smartphones and tablets are part of our world these days.
When my daughter has spent three hours in a playground, we tend to be more lenient than at other times. She can outclimb children twice her age, and open anything from zip bags to locks, so I’m not worried about motor control.
We can try to read books to her, but that can get her so fed up she literally starts eating them.
When she was puking her guts out, putting her behind a tablet so she calmed down was healthier in the end, I feel.
Honestly, she spends too much time in front of a screen if you look at the guidelines. On the other hand, she spends hours a day in playgrounds and outside, and she has better motor skills than her peers.
ADD… yeah, looking at her current attention span, I feel that might be a risk. I guess we’ll see.
We try to relax and balance between keeping screen time to a minimum and keeping everybody happy. And then I worry about it all the same.
It’s so great being a dad in the twenty-first century…