Screen time is the cumulative minutes in a day that a person uses an electronic device. Screen time includes entertainment like TV and video games, as well as social media, work (like writing this post), and daily life tasks completed via the Internet. Research is underway and conclusions appear daily about the effects, both negative and positive, an increasing amount of screen time is having on us.
Before we get to the negative, which I’m sure you’re anticipating, how about a positive? Connecting empathetically with another person, even via a screen, releases oxytocin in our brains, which is the feel-good hormone sometimes called the “love hormone.” It is responsible for igniting feelings of cooperation, connection, and creative collaboration. With so many people connected via the Internet, we’ve experienced a global rise in creative endeavors fueled by collaborative efforts.
But the news isn’t all good. When unchecked, our happy neurotransmitters (oxytocin among them) can create an insatiable dependency. That is to say that a person needs an ever-increasing amount of screen time to induce the same feel-good experience they had before. This is the definition of addiction.
Children are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of too much screen time. Turning on the TV, playing video games, or trolling social media is easily accessible, and can provide relief from the pressures of school. It’s not easy to resist the temptation to escape into a screen, or to make different choices than the mainstream culture, which endorses heavy screen use.
But there are some very good reasons to resist:
1. Brain Development
When a child spends too much time with a screen, it affects the delicate balance of chemicals and hormones in their developing brains. Screens are an environmental cause of what can appear to be clinical depression or ADHD, among other mental-health disorders.
Tip: Take a screen fast. Eliminate electronics completely from your child’s life for several weeks and observe what changes this makes in their mental health and behavior. Then, if you choose to reintroduce screens, do so sparingly, like for thirty minutes to an hour a day.
2. Irregular sleep patterns
The light from screens offsets the melatonin in our bodies, which is what cues us that it is time to sleep. Disrupted sleep and insufficient sleep are the source of many other troubles, especially for children.
Tip: Remove screens from bedrooms. Don’t allow children to take portable electronic devices like tablets and phones to bed with them.
3. Exposure to violence, inappropriate content, and misinformation
The most common source of aggression is modeled on TV. That includes both overt violence like assault and indirect violence like racist, classist, and sexist references. When kids engage with screens, their abilities to think critically and make value judgments are impaired. They can easily absorb and adopt values and behaviors from the content they are watching.
Tip: Don’t surf for something to watch. Read reviews, talk to friends, and choose shows, movies and video games intentionally. Talk about the content as a family or with friends, affirm the values and behaviors you like, and explain the ones you don’t. That may sound like a lot of work, but the upside is that you’ll automatically use less screen time.
4. Screens make poor company.
Many people use screens out of habit, or because they are uncomfortable with stillness or silence, not because they actually care about what’s on the screen. With children in the home, this habit could be as unhealthy as smoking indoors. Children absorb what they hear and see even when it seems they are not paying attention.
Tip: Listen to instrumental music instead of turning on the TV for background noise at home.
5. Time flies when you’re wasting it.
For everything that you do choose to do, you don’t choose to do something else. A screen can never be as satisfying as other restorative things you and your kids could do for the same amount of time.
Tip: Turn off the TV this evening and do one of these activities instead.
- Create – color, draw, or paint a picture; write a poem; sculpt with clay; cook or bake.
- Go outside – walk, play a sport, sit on a bench.
- Read for pleasure – become a regular at your nearest library.
- Do something helpful for someone else.