Stop what you’re doing right now. Look around. Count the number of digital screens around you. There’s the one right in front of you. Your phone. Your TV. Your partner’s phone. Your iPad. Your desktop computer. Our lives are filled with screens, big and small. While we may remember the days before the inundation of digital stimuli, our children have only known a world in which digital entertainment is as close as mom or dad’s pocket.
Screen time is a constant temptation for parents and children. It’s convenient, and allows us to get other things done while our children are absorbed. It’s targeted toward children, with special programming that’s designed to teach reading or math or other social skills. It’s calming, and helps children focus, as children are able to sit silently for very long periods in front of a computer or TV. The short term “benefits” of screen-time, though, are strongly outweighed by the negative impact on their developing brains and the opportunities children lose by spending too much time in front of screens.
American children spend, on average, seven hours a day with screens on in their environment, including watching them with family, watching them independently, or engaging in other activities while the TV or computer runs in the background. Children under five watch, on average, four and a half hours of video a day. We know, though, that young children’s minds develop best when they’re able to engage with the physical world, acting on their environment and exploring through concrete, hands-on experiences that translate into schema about how the world works and their own influence on it. It’s little surprise, then, that screen time limits and changes children’s development. The American Academy of Pediatrics links children’s screen time to long-term health challenges, though, including irregular sleep, behavioral problems and obesity. Children’s minds are altered by watching and playing online games. That ability to focus? Recent studies link computer games and videos to increased levels of dopamine, which give children a short-term sense of pleasure, but decrease their ability to remain focused when they don’t have immediate rewards. The rapid changes of images develop an expectation of frequent stimulation in ways that the real world doesn’t offer. The ability, then, to focus and concentrate in the pace of most real experiences, is decreased.
Think, too, about the time that children spend in front of screens as time when they necessarily aren’t doing other things. They aren’t playing with peers. They aren’t building with blocks. They aren’t interacting with their environment. They aren’t creating new things. They aren’t influencing their world. They aren’t socializing with their families and others. They aren’t engaging in the essential activities that support their physical, emotional, social and intellectual development.
Montessori classrooms reflect children’s natural development, addressing the critical opportunity to develop concentration and attention through prolonged practice with hands-on manipulatives. In our classrooms, real action leads to real consequences. Children’s influence on their environment is observable and repeatable and, in turn, helps to develop their understanding of how the world works and their own ability to influence that world. These are essential lessons for early childhood, building a sense of self and self-efficacy that will impact children’s learning for years to come.
So, should you do away with the screens entirely? That’s probably not feasible anymore, although it’s an interesting goal. At the least, screen time should be rare and carefully monitored. The APA recommends no screen time at all for children under 2 years old, and no more than 2 hours total throughout the day (including car rides, computer time, watching videos on parents’ phones while waiting during errands) for children over 2.
When you do use screens, think of them as time with your child rather than as a digital caregiver: look for interactive media that gives you an opportunity to sit with your child and talk together about what you see. Use technology to access images that aren’t available locally, like video images of geography from around the world or interactive chat time with family members far away. Avoid using screens to keep you child busy while you do other tasks and look, instead, for hands-on puzzles, playdough, building blocks or other special activities. If there are activities that can’t be postponed until child-free times, think of ways to engage your child in the activity with you. Invite them to search for numbers when you visit the bank, or ask them to draw a picture of the tools they see the handyman using at your house. The practical need to keep your child engaged while you manage other tasks is a real one, but a little creativity can identify ways of engaging without abusing the technological babysitters.
For more information, you might enjoy this video from Dr. Dimitri Christakis -- just don’t watch it with your child!