A few weeks ago, I gave a workshop about balancing screen time time activities with off line activities. And while everyone embraced the concept, and honestly felt a sense of relief hearing about it, several moms just like you had a nagging feeling in the back of their minds that there could be another issue here, a physical one.
What about the effects of the screen on brain development?
I also wondered about the effects of the screen on brain and eye development. I have read and heard mixed information.
That "mixed information" part is so very important and relatable; there is a lot of information out there and it can be hard to wade through and decide what we need to hold onto and actually do something about!
Most of us just don't want to miss anything important and we want to make sure that we are doing the absolute best that we can for our kids as we muddle through this new terrain. The truth is that a lot of the information out there has validity to it and we shouldn't ignore it.
In this article I'm going to share with you exactly how I wade through the information, how I decide what to do with it, and for this specific topic of the physical effects of screen time, what I actually do with the information when it comes to my own kids.
By now you probably know that I am not going to tell you that screens are bad and to keep your children off of them. This is just not realistic and I actually think that doing so is detrimental to our kids, because if we're ignoring the reality of what they're doing, then we're obviously not teaching them what they need to know about it!
I also think that there is so much value in making our decisions based on reality. As in, are you planning on making your family completely screen-free? No phones, no computers, no movies, no emails? If so, then this article is not for you.
But if you're not planning on doing this, then you need reliable information about the effects of screen time and a doable action plan for what to do with this information. That, I can help you with.
Because not going 100% screen-free is not the same thing as not paying attention to the very real physical effects of spending time in front of a screen, here's what I did when these important questions were brought up.
After the workshop ended, I immediately started googling the topic of the effects of screen time on brain and eye development. After reading a few of the articles, I had to stop because the information was either highly clinical, overly scare-tactic focused, or both.
So I did something different instead.
I reached out to my children's pediatrician and my father in law, who is a general practitioner, and I asked them what they thought. I did this for two reasons. The first is that they're obviously trained to understand the clinical side of things. And the second is that I trust their practical and pragmatic lines of thinking. (And another reason, but one that might not mean as much to you as the first two, is that I know that they love my kids and would only share the very best advice with me when it comes to their care!)
Before I dig into what I learned from them as well as the article and what all of this information means to you, I want to share a story with you from when my kids were babies. We've been seeing our pediatrician for this long! With our first baby especially, we held pretty true to the "no screens" rules of parenting. This became trickier with my younger two as my oldest was definitely old enough to watch a television show by the time that they were around and the TV was definitely on at times while they were babies.
But besides this fact, what all three of my kids also had was a little star in their crib that showed lovely baby type scenes like sheep, moons, and stars and sang "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" to them when they turned it on and off. All three of them were madly in love with this device and, honestly, my husband and I were, too, because they each played with it independently for a few minutes in their cribs before they called us to come get them. And those coveted extra minutes of sleep were very welcome!
But one day I realized that this was just a screen, wasn't it?
Yes, I saw the differences between the sweet "Twinkles" as my kids called it, and a TV show, but it was still moving images, it was still a distraction, and it was still something to stare at and not interact with.
So at my daughter's well check visit, I asked our pediatrician about it and here's what she did: She laughed. Not in a mean way, but in a realization way. It absolutely was a screen, but no one was writing articles about the effects of "Twinkles" on babies' brains or eyes.
This was eleven or so years ago now, but what she said next was very similar to what she told me about the effects of screens on children's brain and eyes: It is something to be aware of, not something to over-worry about.
Because the truth is that screen time isn't going anywhere.
If anything, it's becoming more prominent and a bigger part of our kids' lives as more schools are implementing one-to-one device to children ratios (one device per student), homework is due via the computer, and grades are checked and teachers are communicated with via the Internet.
So this kind of pragmatism is the key to all things digital parenting. We have to learn what we can and implement the best ways possible to teach our children how to maneuver technology given what we know. This is why I wrote my foundations course Raise Your Digital Kid™; it's so important to stay on top of these things so we can meet our kids right where they are and teach them what they really need to know!
Here is the process that I use to stay informed:
- I read articles about the topic.
- I ask trusted experts in the field who have studied the information for their profession. Sometimes, I also reach out to peers to ask for their personal thoughts and experiences.
- I connect to what I've learned in both arenas based on two things: how does what I'm learning from both sources impact and relate to my own life and experiences and what realistic changes can I make?
- I distill the information, make it my own, and act on it in a pragmatic and effective way.
Note that I spend equal time in each "section." The idea is to learn and act, not get lost in any one form of information!
This line of learning and thinking makes so much sense and we can use it to guide how we teach our own children to monitor the effects of their screen time today.
So that is what we're going to dig into next.
There are both physical and mental cues that our bodies give us when we've had enough screen time. Our goal is to become super-aware of these cues and to have an action-plan for what to do when we first feel them.
So this isn't about parents setting arbitrary time limits on kids' screen time—below I'll get into why I really don't believe in these. This is about teaching our children how to self monitor and self regulate their screen time. Kids who learn how to do this will not fall prey to Internet addiction or the negative side-effects that come with too much screen time.
And parents who teach these kinds of things when their children are very young, won't fall prey to mad googling or unpractical rule enforcement when their children are a bit older.
If you are interested in learning more about the topic of screen time balance, my free introductory course Raising A Digital Kid: Balancing Screen Time is tailor made for you. You can learn more about it by clicking right here.
A few of the physical cues that our bodies have had enough screen time include:
- Back ache
- Shoulder ache
- Eye strain
- Eye dryness
- Tension in the neck
- Sore muscles
Do you notice how many times "ache" shows up in this list? Our bodies literally hurt from too much sitting in the same position! Because so much of my work is done online, I have learned to pay attention to when I feel any one of these physical effects of screen time, and to take a sitting and screen time break when I do.
For me, a screen time break may look like one of these ideas:
- Taking a walk
- Drinking water
- Doing a chore
- Standing to work
The physical cues that our children will feel from extended sitting and screen use are exactly the same ones that we will feel and the breaks that they can take are actually very similar!
When I shared this information with my own children, they came up with some great ideas for breaks they could take including playing outside, jumping on the trampoline, and having a dance party. I (gently) suggested doing a chore or doing something helpful as well; they didn't necessarily jump at these ideas, but they didn't cross them off of the list either.
One thing to note is that there are also mental or emotional cues that our body gives us when we need a screen-time break. These include:
- Lack of focus
- Sloppy or unclear thinking
- Inability to pull away from what we're doing
- Not enjoying what we're doing (Note: These last two often come together and are a great clue that it's time for a break!)
So our action steps are:
- Share the physical and mental effects of screen time with our kids.
- Ensure that they understand how to recognize these when they are feeling them.
- Specifically teach our children what to do if they feel any of these effects.
- By specifically, I mean write down what the choices are. These are like directions to be followed.
- Model this behavior for our children.
- Monitor how they do with this.
- Step in and reteach this skill as necessary.
This sequence is so important for three reasons. First, it isn't easy to learn and it will take some practice and our kids need our help with it. Second, screen time is here to stay and we absolutely have to teach our children how to use it in a physically and mentally healthy way. And third, like all things Digital Ed related, this isn't a one-time conversation. We need to have a pulse on our kids' screen time habits because how they interact with and experience screens today is definitely going to look different in two weeks, two months, and two years. We have to stay on top of these things if we want to remain relevant and effective!
Now, I mentioned above that arbitrary screen time limits don't work. Here's why.
My husband used to explain to me that these didn't work for video games because oftentimes as soon as you get into a game (educational or not), the time limit would end and you'd never be able to get to the next thinking, building, strategy, and yes, game, level. You'd just start over each time and repeat what you'd done before. This doesn't make sense at all, does it?
Another important aspect of this is that different screen-based activities use different skills. As in, if your child takes a half hour to type out the grocery list in a Note on your phone or to do their homework online, have they reached their screen time limit? This isn't pragmatic to the way every day life works. When screen time limit suggestions were made years ago, the way we used our screens were different and we need to change with the times in order for our rules to make sense and to be effective.
I'm not undervaluing any of this (at all!). If we want our kids to reap the benefits of technology, we actually have to let them use it. But there's more to this.
- There are physical and emotional or mental cues to let us know that we need to take a break from screens.
- Creating the habit of listening to these cues and acting on what we're feeling is key.
- "Acting on it" means taking a meaningful break that includes movement.
- Arbitrary screen time limits don't work because they aren't pragmatic.
- We need to teach our children how to have healthy screen time habits.
- For most children, these skills won't just develop naturally; they have to be taught.
You can be the one to teach your children and students all of the above! Start right here by clicking below to download my free checklist and sharing it with your kids!
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AUTHOR: GALIT BREEN
Hi, I'm Galit. Best selling author, TEDx speaker, parent educator, researcher, mom. I'm going to help you raise and teach your digital kids. I've been teaching and working in social media for 8+ years. If you are so over vague, surface level online safety advice and are ready to actually teach your kids and students what they need to know to make an impact + raise a leader, we're going to get along just fine. Learn more about me here.