Maybe you have a toddler who’s glued to an iPad or a teenager who constantly texts. How do you know when your child is engaging too much with screens? It’s not unusual these days for parents to wonder if their screen-saturated children are normal. Frustrated parents say things like, “My kids are constantly playing video games” and “We don’t have family time anymore.”
In the days before tablets and smart phones, kids played hide-and-seek and made up games with their imaginations. Through that play time, kids learned how to be creative and empathetic to the friend who skinned her knee. They learned how to interact with one another and handle winning or losing. These real world relational skills are largely absent from screen time. Not only do you have to consider what bad habits or character traits your child may be picking up from media, you also must weigh what opportunities for emotional growth are being lost.
For children under 2, it is best to avoid screens altogether according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). You would never know this based on the glut of educational screen-related products geared for babies and toddlers. Young children grow by discovering their world – a real three-dimensional world – not a flat screen of pixels. They thrive in a world full of people and things they can touch, taste, see, hear and smell. Toddlers who spend hours staring at a screen may not be fussing, but they are missing out on developing key motor and cognitive skills.
For children older than 2 years old, the AAP recommends no more than two hours a day of screen time. As more schools incorporate tablets and computers into the school day, this means compensating with less screen time at home. Children need unplugged time to unwind, read, play outside, and talk to siblings and parents.
The reality in most neighborhoods is that we are not following the limits recommended by the AAP. The average American child age 8 to 18 spends more than 7 hours a day looking at a video game, computer, cell phone, or TV. Video games are particularly a concern because of the possibility of addiction especially for boys. Video games are designed to bring pleasure to the brain. Players accumulate points, earn rewards, and reach higher levels. Each success rewards your child with a squirt of dopamine, giving that feeling of euphoria. So the more a child plays, the more he or she wants to play.
In my book written with Dr. Gary Chapman, Growing Up Social: Raising Relational Kids in a Screen-Driven World, you will find a 10 question quiz to gauge if your child is getting too much screen time. Here are four questions to get you started and help you evaluate where your child is today. Answer yes, no or sometimes:
____Your child is upset when you ask him to stop his screen activity to come to dinner or another activity.
____Your child asks you to buy a digital device such as an iPod after you have already said no.
____Your child has trouble completing his homework because he is busy watching television or playing video games.
____If you restricted all screen use for one day, your child would be irritable and whiny.
If you answered yes or sometimes to 2 or more questions, your child may be getting too much screen time. You will want to monitor screen time more strictly and watch for growing attachment to devices.
The pull of electronic devices is strong and almost irresistible for both children and adults. I was sitting in church when a mom pulled out her phone for her toddler to play with. Immediately my three children stopped looking forward and fixed their eyes on that tiny phone in the row in front of us. They wanted to see what the little girl was playing. With a push of a button, a world of pixels vies for our children’s affection and attention. It’s up to us as parents to turn that button on or off.
Children always do better if they have clear boundaries. Screen time is a place where you must set time limits and parameters that are best for your family. Otherwise by default, screen time will take over your child’s free time.
Arlene Pellicane is a speaker and author of Growing Up Social: Raising Relational Kids in a Screen-Driven World and 31 Days to Becoming a Happy Wife. She has been a guest on the Today Show, Family Life Today, The 700 Club and Turning Point with David Jeremiah. Arlene and her husband James live in San Diego with their three children. Visit Arlene’s website at www.ArlenePellicane.com.
Publication date: September 16, 2014