Screen Time and Kids: Myths and Facts

My 4-year-old’s favorite TV show, Blaze and the Monster Machines, follows the high-octane adventures of living monster trucks who occasionally morph into robot monster trucks. There’s a rocking theme song à la Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but unlike the cartoons of my youth, each episode includes a lesson in a STEM concept. (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math.) It seems almost every kids’ show these days offers educational content. Other favorites in our house: Super Why (early reading skills), Team Umizoomi (math), Daniel Tiger (social and emotional skills), Peppa Pig (how to do a spot-on British accent).

As the bar has gone up for kids’ programming, parents have largely come around to the fact that screens aren’t the public enemy we once thought them. Video games, for example, are known to boost problem-solving skills and hand-eye coordination and are even associated with a high I.Q.  Most parents have accepted that smartphones are part of their teenagers’ lives.

But with this acceptance comes a pressing need for boundaries. Sure, Blaze taught my preschooler that “the more you speed up, the stronger the force!” But could he have spent that time building with blocks or playing outside? Does he even know what “force” is?  Every family must establish its own guidelines, but here are a few considerations.

"As the bar has gone up for kids' programming, parents have largely come around to the fact that screens aren't the public enemy we once thought them."

Myth: Kids under 2 shouldn’t watch TV

In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics revised its long-held recommendation that kids under 2 avoid screens. The new policy dropped the minimum age to 18 months and noted that for kids ages 3 to 5, “well-designed television programs” such as Sesame Street can be beneficial in moderation. A crucial caveat is that kids under 2 should watch TV with their parents, as the concern is less about screen time and more about what it replaces, namely parental interaction.

Myth: Video games cause or worsen ADHD

The expert consensus is that video games don’t actually rewire the brain to cause ADHD in kids. Studies have shown, though, that kids with ADHD are more prone to video game addiction, as the fast-paced action offers immediate feedback and taps into that hyperfocus that is common with the disorder. Thus parents of ADHD kids may need to be particularly assertive about limits. As with TV, concerns about gaming revolve around what it replaces, such as reading or socializing. 

Fact (probably): Social media increases the risk of kids’ mental health issues

Research is limited as to how, exactly, social media affects kids’ health. But we know this: A lot more kids today experience depression and other mental health issues than in previous generations. And a professor from San Diego State University who studies generational shifts has outlined a compelling argument implicating social media. (Sample stat: Eighth graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56% more likely to report being unhappy than those who spend less time.) The silver lining? Teens are going out less often, so drinking and car accidents are down.

Any adult who uses social media has experienced its occasional meanness and the uniquely deflating feeling of glimpsing someone’s perfectly edited life. Adolescents don’t have rock-solid self-esteem anyway, so we’ll go out on a limb and call this a fact. At least, it’s a no-brainer to limit your child’s smartphone use, especially in the evening, as sleep is vital to mental health.

As with so many things, moderation seems to be the key to reaping the benefits of technology. Most parents know in their gut when their child is unwinding at the end of a long day with help from a device—or dead-eyed and slack-jawed on the couch from lack of stimulation. As long as your child is getting plenty of fresh air, sleep, and quality face-to-face interactions, you can probably relax about screen time.

Elizabeth Florio
Elizabeth Florio is an Atlanta-based writer and editor and mom of two small children. She loves when her "jobs" intersect and she gets to write about the joys and woes of parenting, even if, like everyone else, she's still figuring it all out.

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