Next week (April 30-May 6) is the annual Screen Free Week in the U.S. I have been thinking about this because sometimes I feel that I am in the ring fighting against video/computer games and my children are clearly cheering for the other side. My boys, 8 and 10 years old, are particularly captivated by the addictive nature of video games. Psychologists call it variable schedule of reinforcement. In other words, you don’t know when the reward will come so you feel compelled to keep playing and playing. This reinforcement is the basis for many forms of addiction. Setting and keeping limits can be exhausting and sometimes I definitely feel like I am down for the count. But I keep getting up because I really believe it is worth the fight. Exposure to media is important in determining so many aspects of my child’s character and I want to influence how they respond to their super stimulating world. Also, various forms of media can easily add up to hours stolen from engaging and fulfilling family time. Believe me, there are times when I am just too tired, too overwhelmed or just too plain hormonal and at those times I consider the Wii my best buddy and favorite babysitter. But I really try to remember
that too much screen can temporarily change my kids, making them irritable, demanding and downright annoying. It is difficult for them to readjust to real life and it can seem boring after the over stimulation of video/computer games. Studies suggest that too much screen can be associated with attention problems and obesity. Also, exposure to violent video games has been shown to increase violent behavior in kids. Although I have considered (and threatened!) a screen free home, it is not likely to happen for more than a week. How can we extract some benefits from screen time for our kids while mitigating the more negative effects?
1. There is some good news. Kids that are gamers have been shown to have increased processing speed and pay more attention to detail. Indeed video games were shown in one study to improve surgeons laparoscopic techniques.
2. Set limits and help your child move toward self regulation. What a life skill to learn how to pull yourself away from something engaging when you know the time is right. The American Academy of Pediatrics makes the following recommendations in their November 2011 Policy Statement:
American Academy of Pediatrics Recommendations for Parents on Media Use in Children
- The AAP discourages media use by children younger than 2 years.
- The AAP realizes that media exposure is a reality for many families in today’s society. If parents choose to engage their young children with electronic media, they should have concrete strategies to manage it. Ideally, parents should review the content of what their child is watching and watch the program with their child.
- Parents are discouraged from placing a television set in their child’s bedroom.
- Parents need to realize that their own media use can have a negative effect on their children. Television that is intended for adults and is on with a young child in the room is distracting for both the parent and the child.
- Unstructured playtime is more valuable for the developing brain than any electronic media exposure. If a parent is not able to actively play with a child, that child should have solo playtime with an adult nearby. Even for infants as young as 4 months of age, solo play allows a child to think creatively, problem-solve, and accomplish tasks with minimal parent interaction. The parent can also learn something in the process of giving the child an opportunity to entertain himself or herself while remaining nearby.
3. Establish very early that you allow screen time only if it doesn’t negatively affect behavior. We had one video game where Mario rotated on some crazy 3-D world, chirping and smirking the whole time. I would get dizzy just watching and it took my kids HOURS to recover from this overstimulation. We put it away for 6 months and tried it again in limited time frames and just being a bit older helped my children process and recover more effectively.
4. Screen time can be very motivating. Use it as a reward to help your child organize their time and responsibilities. Tell your child, “You can do your screen time after your room is straightened, you have read and done your homework” to help him or her focus on what needs to be done and work for the reward.
5. Some of my friends with older children wish they never opened the door to video games. Strongly consider what you need as a family before bringing these powerful tools into your home. Talk to friends and research the type of games involved before you invest in a system.
6. Set enforceable limits that work for your family. In general I think most teachers would agree that screen of any form in the morning before school, especially stimulating video/computer games is not a good way to start your day. Screen during the school week is a tough balancing act. Often by the time we get home after extra curricular activities, do homework, eat dinner, get ready for bed and read there really is no time for screen without feeling like we are squeezing it in and rushing the whole after school/evening routine. That kind of rushing makes me feel like I have lost the limited time that I do have to connect with my children about the day we spent apart. For children who are only in a few hours of school, there may be more flexibility in squeezing in some screen time.
7. Beware of “educational games” and recognize the huge commercial industry this represents. There is some evidence that certain educational media can have benefits for children over age 2 years. However, the data is less convincing for children under age 2.
8. Replace video/computer time with engaging activities with family and friends. None of us can be “on” all of the time but beware of the screen default that is so tempting. Remember it is ok, even good for your kids to be bored. If I am busy, my kids default is to go to screens (OK, they are watching TV as I write this Blog) but I TRY to encourage them to find something else to do. Simple activities like coloring, reading, building with blocks and playing with a board game. They don’t always bite (like today) but sometimes they do and if I am free to color/read/build/play with them, I can almost always divert their interest away from screen. Remember that some children have more difficulty than others transitioning away from screen. Have a simple activity (play doh, cooking, tag, etc) planned to help your child change gears.
9. Have you noticed that play dates, especially with boys can quickly become focused on the gaming system in the house? My son’s friend told me that he wanted to go home when I informed him we weren’t doing the Wii at that moment. Another mom told me as I picked up my 9 year old from a playdate, “They did the Wii for 4 hours and had such a great time!”. For sure, a bit of gaming at a play date is fine but make sure your children have the opportunity to interact with the other child by going outside, creating something together or engaging in plain old imaginative play before they turn on the electronics.
10. Consider your own use of media. Do you have the TV on as background noise?You might need to consider what your children are picking up from the adult channels. Also, it is hard to set limits if your screens are on all day. More than once my children have asked me somewhat accusingly, “Does writing on the computer count as your screen time?”. Throw in checking my smartphone and Words With Friends and I am guilty as charged. So I guess there are some other adult opponents in the ring that I need to contend with while we all learn how screen fits into our lives. Game on!!
Fixated by Screens, but Seemingly Nothing Else
By PERRI KLASS, M.D.
Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv