Excessive: How Screen Time Can Impact a Child’s Development

By Amanda N. Wegner

At one time or another, many parents have given their child a device to keep them occupied. While that’s OK once in a while, some estimates suggest that kids are racking up five to seven hours of screen time each day.

That is too much. In fact, it’s excessive.

“Excessive is when it takes over the everyday activities that kids should be engaged in, like playing, talking with other kids, reading, coloring, spending time with family, playing on playground equipment,” says Krista Huerta, an occupational therapist with Delavan-Darien School District. “When they’re choosing screens over these things, it’s excessive.”

Young minds need human interaction and too much screen time can slow a child’s development on many levels. Both educators and physicians are seeing the ill effects of excessive screen time. “Excessive technology is rewiring our kids’ brains!” says Katie Grady, Delavan-Darien’s school psychologist. “Our brains develop and grow based on input … the brain is designed to change, and can and will for the better or worse. It has to be fed well, and the effects of not feeding it with everything it needs to grow in healthy ways can be permanent.”

Here, two educational professionals and a pediatrician discuss how screen time can affect young minds, and how parents can help set their children up for future success.

THE ILL EFFECTS OF EXCESSIVE SCREEN TIME

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) provides general guidelines for screen time. For newborns to children 18 months of age, the recommendation is to avoid screen time altogether; for children ages 2 to 5, the limit is one hour daily. For children age 6 and older, it’s important to set limits.

“Excessive screen time from an educational perspective has everything to do with balance and moderation,” says Grady. “I agree, no screens before age 2. After that, screen time — gaming, YouTube viewing, Internet, TV, etc. — should not be more time than physical activity, print media and human interaction! If screen time is out of balance and happening more often than these other things, it’s excessive and a problem.”

Research shows that excessive screen time can cause a multitude of health, mental and emotional effects, such as obesity; irregular sleep schedules and shorter duration of sleep; behavioral problems; loss of social skills; violence; even poor eyesight, says Dr. Roberta “Bobbi” Ashby, a pediatrician with Aurora Health Centers in Lake Geneva and Delavan. One recent study found school-aged children who spent seven hours or more a week using computers or mobile video games tripled their risk for myopia, or nearsightedness.

While Ashby is seeing issues related to excessive screen time in her clinic, including weight gain, behavioral issues and sleep issues, schools are also seeing the effects. “Excessive screen time in many ways ‘unprepares’ students for the real world of learning, which requires sustaining attention and mental effort to non-dynamic input, such as listening to a teacher or a peer explain a concept, reading to obtain new knowledge or writing paragraphs on a single topic. It also impairs communication and collaboration with others,” says Grady. “We often are competing for their attention as their brains crave everchanging, novel, fast-moving, instant gratification and responses, things that mimic what screen-time activities provide.”

Too much time with a screen, especially small screens, can also stunt physical skills, such as fine motor skills, physical motor skills, hand-eye coordination, visual perception skills and sensory integration. These are foundational skills required to effectively engage in tasks that require two hands, such as turning pages in a book, using scissors, handwriting, catching/throwing balls, training the eyes/hands to work together and exploring new activities.

“As children spend more time with electronics, such as the iPad/iPhone, they spend less time engaged in activities that develop physical skills that in turn directly impact functional skills necessary for school,” says Huerta. In addition, Huerta adds: “Children are spending less time running around, exploring different environments, and playing with puzzles, LEGOS and Play-Doh…Currently, what we are observing in our district are children who are beginning 4K/5K who are developmentally behind, because they have not been exposed to the opportunities that children were exposed to 10 to 15 years ago.”

In fact, the Delavan-Darien district has incorporated 30 minutes a day designated for fine motor development, when students engage in tasks such as beading, using scissors, puzzles and coloring.

Then there are the emotional effects. Children who engage with screens excessively may lose the ability to understand others’ emotions, which can lead to having fewer friends, poor relationships and lower self-esteem.

For tweens and teens, spending a lot of time on social media right before bed can disrupt sleep and lead to trouble at school, including symptoms similar to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. It’s recommended — for kids and adults — to turn devices off at least one hour before bedtime.

HOW TO HELP YOUR CHILD

Parents who want to limit screen time need to remember that it’s important to model screen-free behavior themselves. “As in most things with parenting, parents should lead by example. If kids see their parents constantly on their phones, or playing video games for extended periods of time, they will want to do that too,” says Ashby.

The AAP recommends that parents develop a family media plan that will hold everyone accountable and sets expectations for family media use.

“Keeping tech devices out of bedrooms is a good way to monitor kids’ digital media activity,” says Ashby. “Make a rule that kids can only use computers in the living room, or in a common area, so parents can see what they are doing when they’re online.”

Also, according to Ashby, parents should make sure children’s time is divided among screens, physical activity, reading, family interaction and the like.

Finally, it is important to consider the content children are engaging with and the social and safety risks related to that. “A child may only be in front of a screen for a short time, but if the content is inappropriate, such as sexual or violent, that comes with consequences and additional risks related to development and behavior health,” says Grady.

Watch for red flags. Signs your child may be engaging in too much screen time include a complete obsession with digital media to the point where they become angry or sad when it’s taken away or cut back, or if they are “sneaking” time on a device during off-times.

While all of this seems to indicate that screen time is bad, Grady points out that the technology is not in and of itself the enemy. “For busy parents, it’s not necessarily a negative thing to be able to focus, take a breather while your child plays on an educational app. The harm comes when it is excessive and taking the place of what our children should be doing to grow, develop and learn. It is a reality of this generation…we just need to find and ensure the balance and be cautious with content.”

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