Most parents have had to grapple with the issue of screen time at some point or another.  We have doubtlessly struggled over what is appropriate, how much is appropriate, setting limits for our children, etc.  There are clearly pros and cons to living in the Silicon Valley, arguably the most technologically minded society in the world.  So let’s take a look at the issue and the factors involved.

Screen time is a term used to describe any time that one might spend in front of a screen.  This would include time in front of a computer, television, game station, iPad, smartphone, etc.  The National Institute of Health (NIH) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend no screen time at all for children under the age of 2.  Infants, toddlers and even preschoolers clearly learn tactilely.  Data indicates that excess screen time can be especially detrimental for little ones.  Having said this, in a recent survey, 56% of parents of preschoolers believed that educational media was beneficial to their kids.  However, there has been absolutely NO reputable data to support this!

For children over the age of 2, both the NIH & AAP recommend no more than 2 hours of screen time a day.  Despite these recommendations, the average 8 year old in California spends over 2 hours on a screen a day; and across the US, kids aged 8-18 years average over 7 hours a day!

The above recommendations are based on data which indicates that kids exposed to more than 2 hours of screen time a day were at significantly increased risk of insomnia, poor sleep quality, ADD/ADHD, anxiety, depression, and obesity.   In addition, a study done out of UCLA just last year showed that there was a direct correlation between screen time and an inability to process and identify emotions.

There has also been some impressive recent data out of Stanford which demonstrated that people had better reading comprehension when they read an actual book as opposed to that same book on a screen or tablet.  Interestingly, people actually read more slowly on the screen, had poorer retention of the material but had no insight in predicting their retention.  In other words, those that read on the screen felt like they comprehended the information and retained it but when tested, did quite poorly.  Physiologically, there was even demonstration (via MRI) that those who read an actual paper book had increased cerebral blood flow and utilized more of their brains compared to when they read on the screens.

So clearly, too much screen time is associated with numerous undesirable risks.  None of us as parents would willingly sign our kids up for something that promised to  give our kids insomnia, ADD, anxiety/depression, obesity, poor reading comprehension and poor emotional integration skills!  Further complicating the issue is the fact that regardless of the cautionary data & risks, the technology ship has clearly already set sail.  The top schools in our own neighborhoods proudly market that every student has their own iPad.  However, living in Silicon Valley, we’d be naive if we didn’t also recognize technology’s numerous advantages.  There is certainly a risk of demonizing technology.  But any honest look will also reveal the tremendous advantages as well.

Anecdotal as it may be, I’ve seen evidence of screens opening up a world of learning to my own children:

–  I’ve watched my kids use the internet to research topics that they were interested in.

  • I’ve watched them put together powerpoint presentations for class and creatively put the slides together.
  • (Or if I’m being perfectly honest, I recall the days when I used the screen as a parental sanity tool as I turned on the tv and plopped my kids in front of it to steal a quick shower or cook dinner.)

Undoubtedly, we all want what is best for our kids.  The societal pressures and incredible cultural tidal-wave of technology in the classroom is unlikely to be quelled.  Our job as parents (& teachers) is to limit it appropriately (both contextually and temporally) and to be aware of the risks while embracing the potential for learning that it also creates.

Patricia Hockett, MD