Did you know that computer, phone, tablet, and TV screens can have an impact on how your child develops, both physically and relationally? One of the scariest things I've seen lately are toddlers and young children, some times even infants, with their eyes glued to a device screen. This isn't just during entertainment time, like when Mom and Dad are watching the news and it's BORING. I'm talking about at a table in a restaurant, sitting in the grocery basket at the supermarket, and even in the pew at church. This growing trend of parenting our children by setting a screen in their hands is very concerning to me. So here are 5 things you need to know about screen time.
1) Blue Light- Screens emit light in the blue range of the visual spectrum because they operate off of pixels. Blue light has a very profound impact on our circadian rhythm. Not familiar with that term? Circadian rhythm is the method through which our bodies interpret when it is time to sleep and when it is time to wake up within a 24 hour cycle. If your children are constantly exposing themselves to blue light produced by device screens then they are teaching their bodies to suppress melatonin, which they need in order to sleep soundly and for appropriate lengths of time. This phenomenon has been well documented. So what can you do? Turn off electronic devices 1 hour before you want you child to go to bed and never let them lay in bed and watch something as they are trying to fall asleep. That way they have a chance to build up the melatonin in their bodies and prepare for sleep. If you can, make sure your child's environment is lit by daylight whenever they are using a device, or place a daylight lamp near them while they use it. This will alow your child to be exposed to the red end of the spectrum too.
2) Social Learning- Your children have these things called mirror neurons in their brains. They recognize your emotional state and physical actions and trigger the
need to copy you, or reflect them back. Thus the name "mirror" neurons. This process is how the brain forms new patterns of behavior, because as they fire the pathway needed to copy you, new connections are made along that pathway and the pathway becomes strengthened so that they can repeat the pattern without your prompting. How are your kids supposed to learn social interaction and behavior from YOU when their attention is on a video screen? They do not react the same way to a digitally produced image as they do to you. They may learn their ABCs faster because they are watching "educational programming" but they aren't learning how to be a human being, and ultimately, that is what we as parents are tasked with teaching them. So what can you do to influence their social learning? Get off your devices when in restaurants, stores, and when you are in social situations and make sure they see you interact socially with other adults. Play games with your children that teach values like manners, politeness, and conversation skills.
3) Slow Wave Reinforcement- Screen time, especially in the form of video games, is comforting for children with ADD tendencies. It's true. But, and this is a big BUT, they are comforting because they are reinforcing the same frequencies of brain activities that are already dominant in an ADD brain! In other words, it feels good because it's encouraging the brain to function that way more, instead of less! The most common comment I hear when people call our office for an assessment is "My child can't have ADHD. He/she can sit in front of a computer/Xbox/Playstation/DS for HOURS." Of course they can. It's not asking them to do any actual brain work! So what can you do to combat slow wave reinforcement? Keep the screen time limited to 30 minutes or less at a time. Make sure your kids are taking a break from the screen for at least 20 minutes in between "sessions" on the devices. If they say they have nothing to do, then have them do a chore, help with a project you're working on (think: Connect with Kid Time), or play. If they can't find something to do, have them exercise, which requires more fast wave activity.
4) Active time vs. Passive time- Have you ever seen a child work on their motor skills through play while holding a screen in front of
their face? Imagine trying to play soccer in the backyard or practice a free throw while holding a phone. How about watching TV while modeling with Play-doh. Riding a bike while playing a video game? It doesn't work. You can't be active physically and passive mentally. Your brain controls your body and it has a hard time splitting it's focus between watching something (which requires slow activity in the judgement and motor control areas of the brain) and doing something (which requires faster activity in the judgement and motor control areas of the brain). Usually, the passive activity takes priority. The results can range from motivational issues to obesity. What can you do to combat passive time? This one is actually easy. Set aside time each day for play... without electronics. If you think, "But our days are so busy! My kids don't have time to play outside!" then watch for when they ask for, or reach for, their electronics and make them earn the screen time by finding something active to do for at least 20 minutes.