As the digital revolution continues to expand, becoming a larger and larger part of children’s lives, parents often wonder how to set healthy guidelines for their children. This is true even for very young children, who often spend a great deal of time in front of televisions, iPads, and smart phone screens watching movies and playing games. Increasingly, these shows, movies and games are aimed directly at young children. Some of these are clearly not educational, while others are marketed as being good for brain development. In any case, busy or exasperated parents often see screens as convenient ways to capture a child’s attention or even to divert from what might otherwise be some form of behavior disruptive to the parent (recall the common sight of children quietly watching movies at a restaurant).
While we all want our children to grow up with experience with digital devices and applications, we also want to insulate our children from the negative effects of excessive screen time. A healthy person appreciates the value of electronic media, understands its use and its pitfalls, and maintains a balance of on- and off-line activities and interactions: a healthy mind, healthy body, and healthy relationships!
Setting expectations on digital exposure must begin early. As important as it is to let young children explore quality learning games, it is also important to set time limits - short at first - and to ensure that digital media do not replace human interaction. Ensuring meals are times for personal interaction - with no electronics allowed - is an important element of this.
Schools also have a role in teaching children to have a healthy relationship with electronics and digital media. Schools that utilize iPads for games or learning activities should be sure that these devices are put away after the activities are over, so that children don’t become overly dependent on them - this is especially true at younger ages. Schools have the opportunity - and the obligation - to ensure that children develop a healthy relationship to devices and media that can be an incredible source of information and research. When schools do this well, children are less likely to see electronic devices simply as playgrounds.
As children get older, some parents will relent to their child’s pressure to let them have a smartphone, because it can be convenient for the parent to be able to call or track their child - but the longer the parent delays, the better for the child - most parents try to wait until middle school. Children and adolescents quickly exhibit signs of addiction if they are given unlimited access to devices. Studies have shown this is more than a strong mental attachment; interacting with video games causes a release of dopamine in the brain, similar to that of certain drugs, Excessive use can also cause behavioral issues or make existing behavioral problems worse: a 2006 study in the Annals of General Psychiatry found that playing video games for just one hour per day led to more severe symptoms in children diagnosed with ADHD.
It’s also important to be aware of the disruption that electronics can have to sleep patterns. The light emitted by screens (called ‘blue light” even though it may not appear blue) lowers melatonin production by the body, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Most experts recommend turning off screens at least one hour before going to sleep. And parents should absolutely be sure their children do not have any devices with them in the bedroom, because children will play with those devices rather than sleep. And this goes for children of any age - as noted above, even adults will experienced diminished sleep quality due to blue light emissions.
Parents have the opportunity to raise their children in a way that will give them a healthy relationship with electronic devices - be sure to start early!