Screen Time Series, Part 3

The Benefits

Last week was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of reasons for minimal screen time, but there are wonderful benefits for the screen time that we do allow.  As with most things in life, the benefits increase the more proactive we are about them. The internet brings infinite opportunities for research and learning to our fingertips.

There is a wealth of informative videos (informally on sites like YouTube or formally on something like Khan Academy) that we can use to teach kids. The opportunities are mind-boggling. From how car engines work to what happens when you drop a ping pong ball three stories into a pool, this is all content that can support curiosity and learning.

Watching a show or movie with your child and discussing it together is a completely different cognitive experience for a child than watching something alone.  Such shows provide great content for discussing your values, social situations, and decision making.

Apps and websites can make rote drills more fun — typing programs, math facts, names of countries/capitals, etc. through websites like JetPunk, Sheppard Software or Quizlet.

Connecting with friends and family is amazing (this just needs to be supervised and limited with kids).

There are options to organize kids who aren’t naturally organized (take pictures of assignments, homework apps, Google Docs).

And there are great coding practices for kids headed into STEM. The list goes on and on.

Back to my dessert metaphor: there is SO much good and joy and, better than dessert, really constructive uses of screen time.  We don’t need to stay out of the candy store, we just need guidelines about how much we’re going to eat and how long we’re going to be in there (and who’s going to enforce that).

Screen Time Series, Part 2

The Challenges

Many parents worry about screen time, but don’t necessarily understand all of the threats.  I’m going to talk through four major categories for parents to consider.

1. Biological – Screens affect the brain and eyes primarily through the blue tint of the back light.  This is changing all the time as new screens come out, but be aware that the light is extremely (unnaturally) stimulating and disrupts sleep and blinking significantly.  Even sleeping near a screen changes our sleep patterns, as part of the brain appears to keep “one eye open” in case a message comes in.  Experts recommend that children don’t use screens an hour before bedtime and do not sleep with screens in their rooms.

2. Chemical – This is more complicated, but screen addictions are real and chemically measurable.  This is mostly associated with gaming, but we all experience slight stimulation when we see the little red dot indicating a notification and we all release endorphins as we tick off the checking of those dots–reading our texts or clearing our notifications.  Adolescents are particularly susceptible to social media which imitates an addiction (adults report this too), but the chemistry here gets mixed in with social pressures and they are hard to separate.  Lastly, due to their addictive nature, or how easy it is for us to pay attention to our screens, our concentration and attention when we’re NOT looking at a screen has suffered. This is a huge problem at school, obviously, where teachers and texts cannot compete with the entertaining nature of a device.  Our devices are absolutely affecting our brain chemistry and we are only beginning to learn the ins and outs of it.

3. Social – Two dangerous elements of social interactions on our devices are that it’s virtually unsupervised and it never turns off. So imagine allowing your 14 year old to go to a large party in a warehouse with 50,000 other teenagers and then leaving them there for days without any adult around.  Except it’s worse than that–since it’s virtual, everyone can craft their own brand or narrative. People can make themselves seem perfect, popular, skinnier, happy. They can make others feel awful in very subtle ways (I would argue that this is much more hurtful written down for some reason than when the same thing might happen in the hallway). Kids feel left out, uncool, unloved, behind on the latest news, etc. (they may *feel* isolated but they won’t look like it). And it never stops unless a parent stops it. It is VERY hard for kids to manage all of this without adult help. Also, the false sense of anonymity makes almost everyone (adults and kids alike) bolder on the internet–almost everyone will say things in a comment or text or even an email that they would never say to someone’s face.  I predict that there’s some sort of neural inhibitor missing when you’re not looking at someone face to face (my own surmising, not research).  It’s just kids being kids (impulsive, a little egocentric, and fighting for a sense of emotional survival) without adult supervision. They NEED adult supervision to coach, warn, provide perspective, call other parents, and periodically absolutely forbid something.

Secondly, screen time can stunt kids who are awkward and truly isolated because it gives them an excuse to avoid interaction. Much of socialization involves surviving awkward conversations, learning how to approach a group of kids and join in, and grinding away slowly at the process of building relationships.  Kids who aren’t as good at this use screens to avoid these situations, so they are even less likely to develop these skills.

4. Self-Regulation – Devices give us all a way out when sometimes true growth or character is developed by not having a way out.  While it’s fantastic that they have made our lives easier, we are learning that children benefit a lot by NOT having an easier life in many ways.  The confidence and grit and independence that we want them to have can only be developed through actual practice, working through discomfort, fear and insecurity.  Constantly having a lifeline to parents, or to avoidance/escape, or to entertainment leaves kids vulnerable to anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and helplessness.

Was this too depressing? Part 3 will be the benefits of screen time!

Screen Time Series, Part 1

How do we know that screen time is not good for growing brains? There is a lot of research out there that demonstrates the challenges of screen time.  It’s too much for my little space here, so I’ll list some books below for those of you who want to dive deep.

It’s a tricky thing to test because quantifying any effects on our brains require human beings and ethical conditions.  It’s nearly impossible to pull off direct, controlled studies of anything when humans (especially children) are involved.  So we use a lot of surveys or other indirect studies.  I’ll highlight a couple of powerful findings.

A child under the age of 12 (maybe others, but the testing was on children under 12) has a lower metabolism when they are sitting in front of a screen, than when they are sitting alone in a plain white room.  This does not say so much about physical health (although that is certainly important), as it does about the stimulation of the brain and the overall physical effect on the child. It’s powerful.

On the other end of the age spectrum, multiple studies have linked increased depression and anxiety in adolescents with screen time.  This is pretty broad and can mean a lot of things.  Is social media making kids feel stressed and left out?  Is gaming isolating kids socially?  Are kids who spend a lot of time on devices less likely to develop social skills and interact with their peers?  Or are depressed/anxious kids more likely to go to their devices for solace?

The Montessori philosophy is that children are more stimulated and learn more from the actual experience, from having the concrete right in front of them.  So anything abstract or virtual is already less valuable to us curricularly.  Screen time falls into the category of  “not hands on” for the most part.  It’s not real life. The most compelling research is really our own anecdotal experience.  There is no doubt in our minds that students who experience limited screen time focus better, are more engaged in learning, and usually have a spark that kids who are in front of screens for unlimited amounts of time don’t. It’s difficult to prove scientifically, but it’s powerful when we see it over and over again.

Books like The Plug In Drug,  The Big DisconnectThe Narcissism Epidemic,  The Science Behind the Genius and Digital Minimalism are powerful explanations of this complex subject.