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Dear Nadine,
My son’s an iPhone junkie. Any suggestions? — Frustrated Father, Coon Rapids

It’s been a hive of peaceful, productive activity in our house these past two weeks.

Gone went the beeps, the buzzing, the dinging and the droning of the TV, the tablets and the computer. These were replaced with the murmurs of kids playing chess, playing imaginative games, playing outside. Gone went the passive gazing and out came building and painting and reading and discussion. Gone went the slouching and the grunting and up went the grades at school. Gone went the tossing and turning before bedtime and in came restful sleep.

It was as if the moment we banned all screen time, a light came on in our children’s souls and their little spirits came out to play, again.

What used to be a question of the economic disparity between kids who had access to screens and those who did not has today transitioned into a concern with what constitutes excessive screen usage for kids and what does not. From our toddlers to our teens, it’s a weighty topic because the time kids spend in front of screens continues to increase, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids are allowed no more than one to two hours screen time per day — and for kids under 2, none at all.

But the reality is that 38 percent of children under the age of 2 used a mobile device for media in 2013, according to A Common Sense Research Study. Some 75 percent of teens spend at least two hours a day watching TV and using a computer, with 15 percent of kids watching TV for more than four hours each day and 12 percent using their computers for more than four hours a day, according to two national surveys of kids age 12 to 15 compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published in the July 2014 issue of NCHS Data Brief.

These results did not include cell phone use, which would likely have compounded these statistics, as the Connected Kid Report illustrates. Childwise looked at all screen use of 2000 British kids from age 5 to 16 and found that they engaged with a TV, games console, computer or mobile for a whopping average of 6.5 hours a day.

So what’s the effect on kids of such hefty hours spent with a screen? From a purely physical perspective, screens keep kids sedentary and that has ramifications for a child’s body and health. A 2013 research study of 91 teens from ages 13 to 15 and their media use by Boston Children’s Hospital concurs. Researchers found that 14-year-old boys who reported paying the most attention to what was showing on TV weighed 14.2 pounds more than boys who reported paying the least attention. For girls, the difference was 13.5 pounds. And in another study, researchers found that Australian teen boys who exceeded two hours of screen time per day were twice as likely to have abnormal levels of insulin and homeostatic model assessment of insulin resistances compared to their peers, which implies an increased risk of insulin resistance. Basically, a three-hour plus TV diet that trends into adulthood clearly has ramifications for adult obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

On an intellectual level, too much screen time has been shown to have a detrimental effect on our kids’ minds. Screen novelty causes the release of dopamine, a chemical that contributes to learning and concentration and which is produced when we see something interesting or different. If kids watch screens all day, their brains become desensitized to the effects of normal levels of dopamine, making it harder to concentrate and focus on non-screen-based stimuli.

Not surprisingly, a study of 2,623 children who watched television at ages 1 and 3 years revealed a significantly increased risk of developing attentional problems by the time they were age 7. For every hour of TV watched by a kid each day, there was a 9 percent increase in subsequent attentional problems consistent with a diagnosis of ADHD. In other studies of older kids, Swing et al concluded, “Viewing television and playing video games each are associated with increased subsequent attention problems in childhood…late adolescence and early adulthood….”

And, of course, dopamine is the neurochemical involved in most addictions, which is why professionals who work with kids are concerned that over time we may meet a generation of adolescents who’ve develop a dependency upon screens — and who, like any addict, will experience withdrawal symptoms if they have to switch off.

As for kids’ spirits, Dr. Robert Pressman, research director of the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology and lead researcher of The Learning Habit Study, examined family routines in 46,000 U.S. homes of children in grades K-12. The study found that after just 45 minutes of screen time, children’s grades, sleep, social skills and emotional balance start to decline. For example, kids took 20 times longer to fall asleep than children with limited media/screen use. Most interestingly, the researchers found that media/screen usage had a clear, detrimental effect on kids’ Grit scores — their willingness to persevere in the face of difficulty. And that affects success. “Grit,” according to Dr. Melissa Nemon, the lead statistician for the Learning Habit, is “the character trait most closely linked to academic achievement.”

So — given the facts, how should parents handle screen time?

  • Begin by assessing your own screen usage. Consider how often you find yourself posting to Facebook or checking for text messages, or fiddling with Instagram as a way to relax. If, outside of work, you are using screens for more than two hours a day, limit your own screen usage — especially when your kids are around — and demonstrate good habits, letting your parenting spirit shine through.
  • Remove those TVs and computers from your kids’ bedrooms and limit their screen time to no more than 90 minutes of recreational use per day! Although in the short-term screens keep kids quiet and occupied, the long-term benefits of just saying “No” frequently and often will result in better school performance, better concentration, better sleep and that’s good for every kids’ spirits!
  • Keep the TV or tablet use for long journeys rather than those short trips to school or the store. Encourage kids to read, listen to music or chat about their day and use those short car trips to interact and ensure kids stay present, open and connected — heart, mind and soul.
  • Don’t get pressured into buying your tween that iPhone6 or creating a Facebook or Instagram account for them. By holding tweens off of cell phones, Facebook or from other social media during these earlier years, you’ll save money (phones are costly) and your kid will be a little more mature and better able to handle their internet use (including what they post online and how to respond to negative posters) when you finally give them the green light to go online when they’re in high school.

Our modern world is dominated by technology — and today’s technology is fast, friendly, informative and fun. Today’s kids are expert technology users who are comfortable using two screens at once. But like most things in life, too much of a good thing can have detrimental side effects. Excessive screen time and media use will detrimentally impact kids physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, as kids tune in and switch off.

So, think balance and change the rules in your house. Limit screen time for everyone and watch how your family reconnects — body, mind and unplugged spirit.

Resources

Connected Kids

Face Time vs. Screen Time

Internet Addiction: The New Mental Disorder

Teen Internet Addiction

Internet and Teenagers’ Brains

Gray Matters and Screen Time

Wired Kids and their Brains

Put Down that Smartphone

How Young is Too Young

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Nadine Penny attained her M.A. from the University of Denver in Counseling Psychology. Nadine lives in Minnetonka where she works as a medium, life issues reader and Reiki master. Contact her at nadine.penny@gmail.com and visit www.nadinepenny.com.

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