After France banned smartphone use on the school grounds starting September 2018, we take an in-depth look into the most recent scientific data on how screen time shapes kids’ development.
The rate at which average screen time amount increased over the last few years is staggering.
Television, computer screens, smartphones, tablets and other devices now take up to 4 hours of children’s waking time. A recent survey shows smartphones are slowly surpassing television as kids’ primary source of entertainment. Engaging with peers through social networks is already preferred over texting or calling.
In 2014, 46 % of European children aged nine to 16 owned a smartphone. In 2018, 91% of nine to 11-year olds in the UK own a smartphone. The similar trend is also present in the United States. In 2018, 95% of teens have a smartphone, which is a 22% increase from the 73% of teens who owned a smart device in 2014.
Smartphones, tablets and other digital devices are undeniably here to stay. Education, entertainment and socializing have become inseparable from screen time in one form or another. The connectedness and availability, among other benefits of the digital age, make our lives easier.
However, there are also valid concerns among parents, medical experts, and educators about the impact the devices have on a developing child.
To answer those concerns and help you understand the importance of balancing your kids’ screen time, we’ll look at the up-to-date scientific findings of the impact the screen time has on physical, intellectual, emotional and social development.
The European Academy of Paediatrics (EAP) and The European Childhood Obesity Group (ECOG) in 2017 found a direct link between rising obesity and screen time exposure among European children. The latest obesity trend nests onto already documented adverse effects too much TV-time has on shaping how physically active kids are. Smartphone, tablets and computer screen time only amplify the sedentary habits and lack of overall physical activity.
Not only does too much time spent in front of the screen promotes a sedentary lifestyle (low physical activity, “eyes glued to the screen”), but the media content kids consume during screen time also shapes their food preferences.
This is one of the reasons why EAP and ECOG advise parents to talk about these messages and provide their children with an alternative view.
Quality sleep is essential in childhood and teen years. The growth hormone is active only during sleep. The developing brain benefits from sleep as well, as it not only provides the rest but also a time for re-wiring the newly formed neural paths.
A recent study found that older children and teens who use social media extensively and sleep with smartphones or tablets in their room face the higher risk for sleep disturbances.
There is a silent worldwide epidemic of nearsightedness. The rise in overall time spent engaged with screens in different formats and the time spent indoors rather than outside are the likely causes. The prolonged screen time and exposure to blue screen light cause digital eyestrain. During screen time, kids blink a lot less than average, resulting in dryer eyes and more effort to focus on the small visual field.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology just recently published a set of guidelines as a response.
Technology exposure, whether through smartphones, video games or TV impacts how a child’s brain develops. However, only due to an unprecedented rise in time spent on screens it is still too early to say precisely how displays are changing kids’ brains.
The area in which we do know a bit more comes from excess exposure to the internet, gaming, and social media. It’s important to note here that these are some of the identified effects of too much screen time. Balanced screen time, combined with quality digital content and parental supervision could be enhancing some brain functions in children.
Smartphone and internet addiction increase the levels of a neurotransmitter GABA, an “inhibitory” neurotransmitter that regulates various brain functions, including anxiety.
The interactive and stimulating nature of on-screen media stimulates the production of dopamine. Dopamine, also known as a “feel good” molecule, is released in the brain as a reward for specific action. Dopamine also plays an essential role in cognitive processes such as attention and motivating behaviors.
Even though there are concerns that too much screen time might be directly contributing to the attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, latest studies about how smartphones influence kids’ brains suggest that device usage might be creating a completely unique problem for children, as well as for adults. Multitasking, as opposed to focused attention, seems to become the default way we all function, including the kids.
Multitasking happens when, for example, your child is trying to do their homework, or focus on some other activity, while the smartphone, tablet, TV or internet browser are also freely available. While juggling multiple tasks, like checking the smartphone, trying to solve a math problem and see what is on TV, children end up with divided attention.
Multitasking has a direct impact on how well your kids perform in school. After four schools in England banned smartphone use in schools entirely, the overall academic performance increased.
One of the significant concerns about too much screen time is how it affects kids’ emotional and social development.
Children learn how to express emotions and recognize the feelings of others through creative play with peers and social learning. They learn empathy, self-awareness, and self-control by interacting with other kids and adults. As digital interactions and screen time take up an increasing amount of playtime, sometimes to the extreme point, kids begin to experience anxiety, depression and social isolation at an early age.
The children are used to their needs being met instantly. Starting from simple examples like “I can watch whatever video I want right now” to “I can always see what my friends are up to.” Instant gratification comes at the cost of learning self-control and learning to delay the immediate pleasure to achieve a more distant goal.
As some authors suggest, this shift toward having everything when they want it might be reshaping how older children and teens socialize, date and approach socially intense situations. They miss out on learning social behaviors in everyday situations because they have been replaced by digital interactions.
Setting boundaries is a natural part of parenting. But, when it comes to digital technology, we are only now realizing the full effects and problems. As one survey showed, parents are finding it more difficult to limit their kids’ screen time than to get them to do their homework.
The effort put into balancing your kids’ screen time is worth it, though.
Not only does limiting smartphone use in schools increases performance, as we’ve seen, but emotional and social development benefit from setting digital boundaries, as well. A study that included 1400 families, over the course of 6 months found that kids, whose parents monitored screen time and the type of content the kids were exposed to get more sleep, perform better in school and are less aggressive.
If you are a parent wondering how to start balancing your kid’s screen time, Sowi Screen Time Balance gives you a simple and easy way to begin.
Nikolina is a psychologist (BSc) and a school counsellor. She focuses on writing about childhood development and other mental health topics in an easy-to-understand and fact-based manner. Nikolina’s writing about mental health matters relies on acceptance and mindfulness-based psychotherapy approaches.
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