How Bad is Screen Time?

I’ve been asking this question in my mind for some time now. There are plenty of warnings against screen time – or at least a restriction on screen time. However, if you examine the guidelines for the amount of screen time is advisable for specific age groups, I am pretty sure many parents have exceeded the recommended daily allowance for it – myself included. I’m sure we all feel guilty about it but we still allow it.

Even the “no screen time for children under 2” recommendation has been in question – the arguments for which have been highlighted in the article Multimedia Babies: What’s a Parent to Do? In summary:

  • the recommendation: “no screen time for children under two” is not helpful in this day and age of technology
  • there is insufficient research on the effects to conclusively state or negate the harmful effects of screen time
  • parents, in general, do not view multimedia as bad
  • parents are concerned that their children will miss out if they do not receive multimedia exposure

The guidelines recommended by Live Science:

No adult TV when youngsters are in the room. Rachel Barr of Georgetown University says parents think babies aren’t paying attention, but research showed that when “Jeopardy!” was on in the background, tots’ play was distracted.

If you need to pop in a video for the under-2 set while you cook dinner, talk them through it. “Look, that’s a ball, just like your ball.” “Oh, see the kitty—what does a kitty say?” It helps their comprehension, Barr’s research shows.

What we have been doing

Both of my boys have had screen time before the age of two. They have also had more than the recommended 1-2 hours of educational screen time a day on some days, although they also have days when they have little or no screen time at all. I do allow more than the recommended screen time sometimes because I do not feel screen time is as harmful as we are made to believe. In fact, I have seen sufficient evidence for the educational benefits of screen time to advocate the use of such technologies in educating our children:

And there have also been incidences where screen time has provided other benefits:

Although I believe in the benefits from screen time, I still set limits for my boys. But as I mentioned earlier, my screen time limitations do exceed the recommendations of the AAP. On occasion, they have received a free reign on screen time, for example, when we are travelling, when there are special traditional festivities where I need to assist my MIL, or when I’m too sick to distract them with regular play. Usually after such occasions, they go through a screen time detox to reset balance.

screen time
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Despite my willingness to allow my boys to spend significant amounts of time with screen technology, there is always this consciousness at the forefront of my mind seeking to establish more screen free time. Although I believe in the benefits of  appropriate screen time, as a parent, I have never lost that fear that I might be unwittingly harming my children even when I think I’m doing the right thing.

The Many Benefits of Playing Video Games

Recently, I read an article from Psychology Today – “The Many Benefits, for Kids, of Playing Video Games” – that flies in the face of all the “anti-screen time” and “screen time limitation” warnings. In his article, Peter Gray not only writes about the benefits of video game playing but that we should allow children to decide for themselves how much of it they get – in other words, no limitations. It seems like a scary thought, but he does point out some good arguments for it. Here are some of Gray’s beliefs and arguments:

  • Children should be free to choose what they want to do because they are capable of making good choices when they are given a chance to choose for themselves. They know what they need to learn what they want to learn about. And if they choose what they want to learn about, they will learn much more, more easily and more rapidly. This argument is essentially the teaching philosophies of Sudbury Valley School and Unschooling
  • Children suffer from too much adult control. Such control conveys the underlying message that their decisions are not to be trusted because they are incapable of making good choices.
  • Why do we limit how much time a child can spend in front of a screen but not when they spend hours reading a book? Why is it okay to limit computer time that a child chooses for himself but not when a child spends hours doing homework – an activity that has been forced upon him? Which activity do you think a child gets more from – the homework (which he does grudgingly) or the computer (which he does willingly)? This is a controversial argument because it challenges some of our beliefs as parents but Gray asks us to “consider the possibility that the kid is learning more valuable lessons at the computer than at school, in part because the computer activity is self-chosen and the school activity is not”.
  • Why do we want to limit a child’s computer time when the computer is such an important tool of modern society? Isn’t this argument akin to Plato’s arguments in The Republic that plays and poetry should be banned because of their harmful effects on the young. Is it not like the elders who warned that writing would rot the minds of the young because they would no longer have to exercise their memories? And that printed novels would lead the young, especially girls and young women, to moral degeneracy?
  • I have read articles that talk about the research that supports the argument on the negative “potential” of screen time but none of them are able to conclusively argue that screen time really is bad because there is insufficient scientific evidence to make such claims. Now Gray cites articles that support the opposite – that “regular video-game players are, if anything, more physically fit, less likely to be obese, more likely to also enjoy outdoor play, more socially engaged, more socially well-adjusted, and more civic minded than are their non-gaming peers”, “that kids who had a computer and/or a television set in their own room were significantly more likely to play outside than were otherwise similar kids who didn’t have such easy and private access to screen play”, “that video games, far from being socially isolating, serve to connect young people with their peers and to society at large”, “that video games promote social interactions and friendships”, and that “kids make friends with other gamers, both in person and online. They talk about their games with one another, teach one another strategies, and often play together, either in the same room or online”.
  • Concerning the arguments on video games and violence, there seems to be a positive correlation between playing violent video games and decreased real world violence. One study showed that “that regular players of violent video games felt less depressed and less hostile 45 minutes after the frustrating experience than did otherwise similar students who didn’t play such games”.
  • Video games have been shown to have positive effects on brain power – there were marked increases in visuospatial ability, working memory, critical thinking, and problem solving. There is also “growing evidence that kids who previously showed little interest in reading and writing are now acquiring advanced literacy skills through the text-based communication in on-line video games”.
  • The children who play video games felt that it gave them a sense of freedom, self-direction, and competence in a world where they are generally treated like idiots who need constant direction.
  • Furthermore, playing “massively multiplayer online role-playing games” (MMORPG) developed skills that are required in the running of a real world corporation.
screen time
Image by Olya Adamovich from Pixabay

Personal Anecdotes

When Gray wrote about the benefits of playing MMORPGs, I was reminded of the time when I was watching a friend play War Craft. Although she was playing alone in her study, her game was connected to her friends through the internet. I had played the game before so I was familiar with the workings of it. I remember how amazed I was watching her – one minute she was building new structures for her base, then she was sending her men off to fight, then she was collecting gold, and in between it all she was sending messages to her friends. I was the person watching and I couldn’t even keep up with what she was doing. It was like her brain was functioning on a different level to mine. There was definitely nothing deficient about how her brain was working.

In spite of all the articles I have read stating that screen time negatively impacts the brain’s development, I have yet to observe any real negative effects on my children’s development. I cannot help but wonder if Gray might be right – that all these warnings on screen time are merely the result of scaremongering or perhaps the fear of the future, the great unknown. That has always been the case in history – we distrust the things that are new because it undermines our security and throws us out of our comfort zone. The old ways are always the best and anything that states otherwise is not to be trusted.

When I think of this, I think of the arguments against homeschooling, unschooling, and early learning. So many people think that homeschooled children are socially inept and they turn out all “weird” because they did not follow the conventional form of schooling despite the number of successful homeschooled children who grew up to achieve amazing things. Then there are those who feel uncomfortable about handing over the educational reigns to their children in the unschooling method because how can a child know what he needs to know? I don’t even need to get started on all the naysayers on early childhood education because they believe the children are being pressured to do things that are beyond the capabilities of their brains and may cause irreparable trauma.

I also remember a time when I read an article and a reader commented that they had seen a child who spent many hours watching TV and they believed the child to be damaged because the child would often repeat lines he had seen from the programs he watched on TV. At the time I read that comment, I did wonder if TV had negatively impacted that child until my own son, Hercules, developed a pattern of repeating the things he had seen and heard. Some times he would suddenly break into a monologue, narrating the entire content of a book that happened to be a favourite of his at the time. Does that mean he’s been damaged by books?

Looks like the only thing we can conclude is that nothing is conclusive. Our children will be the generation that shows us what will come of all this technology exposure from early childhood and I can’t help but feel that it really won’t be as bad as we fear. Or perhaps I kid myself because I’ve always been a child of the Next Generation and I have always dreamed of a future the likes of which we have seen in Star Trek.

So what do you think – does Gray have a point?

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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