Rescuing Children from Electronic Screens

Alan’s related experiences:

-Professional musical performer and music teacher with children since the age of fourteen.

-In 1977, wrote first paper on the effects of television on children and has since written op-ed pieces on the topic for local and regional papers.

-8 seasons as a staff member at children’s summer camps, 1973-1983, including leading backpack trips with children to the top of Half-Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite; also, employed as a specialist in music, drama, folk-dance, and cultural arts.

-B.A. with a primary emphasis on Recreation Administration, 1978.

-Interim manager, Fairytale Town, a fairy-tale-themed children’s amusement park in Sacramento, 1990-91.

-As a Librarian with Sacramento Public Library (1984-2013), provided youth services programs and directly observed how children’s free-time was spent on library computers.  When a Friends-of-the-Library volunteer organization proposed to purchase I-Pads designed specifically for toddlers, decided it was time to retire and create Mindful Media Management.

-Promoted National TV Turnoff/Screen-Free Week from 1995 onward.

-Founding member of Sacramento Play Coalition and ongoing participant and supporter of Sacramento Adventure Playground. (2015-18)

-Regularly engages parents and children at family-oriented fairs and festivals including:  Fairytale Town’s Health & Wellness Fair and Book Festivals (Sacramento, CA), Whole Earth Festival (Davis, CA.), Safetyville U.S.A.’s Safety Fair (Rancho Cordova, CA), Banana Festival (Sacramento, CA), Kids’ Expo (Placerville, CA), and Georgetown Divide Youth Expo (Garden Valley, CA)

-Has presented Rescuing Children From Electronic Screens at:  Sacramento Play Summit (September 2016), Children’s Music Network International Conference (October 2016), Professional Association of Childhood Educators’ Conference (October 2016), Roseville Community Preschool (April 2017), La Familia (August 2018) Children’s Home Society (September 2017), California Kindergarten Conference (January 2018).


-There are three categories of danger when it comes to screen-time and children:

(1)  the dangerous “physiological” impacts to the brain, eyes, physical coordination, etc.

(2)  the potential that the content of the media can mean to a child’s development when heavily exposed to violence and anti-social behavior, drugs and alcohol, sexual promiscuity, etc., and

(3)  the immense “volume of time” spent with screens that prevents healthy options from taking place.

There are direct correlations between TV-viewing, computer use, and video games to a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, diabetes, ill health from minimal exercise, violent behavior, social deficits, symptoms of attention-deficit disorder, and poor academic performance.

Electronic Screen Benefits:

 -An extraordinary tool—so are cars and chainsaws—but we don’t let children use chainsaws nor allow them to drive cars.  (Please read on…)

 Time Spent with Screens:

-Nielsen (ratings):

Children 8-18 spend more than 7 1/2 hours a day in front of electronic screens.  That’s more than 55 hours a week!

-While 75% of parents express a desire for more quality time with their children, 2/3 (66%) of families eat dinner in front of a television screen.

-The Minneapolis Tribune reported that the single highest common factor among National Merit Scholars, a national competition for high school students that is highly regarded as an indicator for academic success, is that of a consistent and uninterrupted family dinner.

-Preschoolers spend 32 hours a week with screen media.  64% of babies and toddlers are watching TV and videos.  36% of one-year-olds have TV sets in their bedrooms.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero screen time for children under eighteen months.

South Korea

-Korea prides itself on its technological advances.  As a consequence, the following have occurred:

-2.55 million people (out 50 million) are addicted to smart phones. That is, they use their phones at least eight hours a day.

-South Korea has many Internet “cafes” where individuals go for access to computer games.  These establishments look much like the rows and rows of slot machines one sees in U.S. casinos.

-Several deaths have occurred in South Korea with individuals so addicted to gaming that they would go for up to 90 hours without more than a trip to the bathroom and minimal nourishment.  The deaths resulted in healthy individuals in their 20’s and early thirties.

-In 2010, a 3-month-old Korean girl died after being fed just once-a-day by her parents who were consumed by online gaming sessions.

-Korea’s Ministry of Public Administration is now mandated to carry out a program that teaches children from kindergarten through 12th grade about the dangers of screen addiction.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V

The current DSM-V includes the addition of “Internet Gaming Disorder” in the updated 2013 edition.  (This is the manual for diagnosing of psychiatric disorders in the United States.)  Video  game addiction is a recognized “mental illness“!

Brain Imaging Results

-TV viewing shows activity in the same brain area as that during sleep: essentially, a passive brain.  By contrast, reading reflects a brain functioning as if the person is engaged in a physical activity.  (Thus, reading has shown to burn more calories than television viewing.)

-Playing the computerized game of Wii, which many computer-game enthusiasts point to as providing physical “exercise” via screen technology, has shown essentially no results as a vehicle for cardio-vascular health.

 Children’s Issues:

 -Childhood obesity:  the average child consumes 167 more calories a day for each hour spent viewing screens.  That’s 61,000 more calories a year for each hour viewed daily.  In 1983, $100 million was spent on advertising to children.  In 2012, that number was up to $17 billion.  Commercials provide both the suggestion of unhealthy food to consume and the break in programming to get the food from the kitchen.

-Sleep disturbance:  too much screen time can take away from getting to bed at a decent hour.  Violent images, both from television and video games, can cause unwelcome images in dreams and minimize the amount of deep (REM) sleep experienced.  Simply telling a young child that violent images aren’t real won’t console them because they can’t yet distinguish between fantasy and reality.

-Academic success is inversely correlated to the amount of television a child views, as it takes time away from homework, time away from necessary sleep, and impedes the brain’s ability to concentrate following viewing.  The recovery time for the brain to be receptive to studying is several hours after screen time has concluded.

-Attention Deficit Disorder is directly linked to the amount of television viewed.  For every hour spent watching television, a preschooler is 10% more likely to exhibit symptoms of inattention.

-Face to face social skills are under-developed if children spend minimal time with in-person conversation.

-Individuals can be attracted by the stimulation of fast moving lights and colors on the screen.  Addictive personalities are likely to be more prone to addiction with screen media.

-Babies are born with 100 billion neurons in the brain.  Their experiences determine which neurons get connected to other neurons and which simply get lost forever.  Electronic screens offer limited tactile and other sensory experiences to the developing brain and, as a consequence, result in minimal brain development.  Eyes and, to a lesser degree, ears are the only senses a young child uses with screens.  The screens do not interact.  Young children need human interaction and use of all senses in order to develop the brain properly.

 -Computers are designed for adults.  By their nature they are not designed for children.  Steve Jobs knew this and did not allow his children to have I-pads, even as teenagers.  Bill  and Melinda Gates did not provide a smart phone to their daughter until she was fourteen.  Melinda Gates regrets not knowing the full impact technology has had on children.  Tony Fadell, co-inventor of the I-phone and I-pod, regrets the use of the I-phone by children.

-When plugged-in 24/7, children miss the opportunity to self-entertain, to be creative and imaginative, to develop all of their senses and develop physical strength and abilities.

-Young children coming into the educational system today lack the strength in their hands, sometimes including ligament damage, from too much video-gaming  and too little physical play.  At least one school principal hired an occupational therapist to work with kindergartners that have difficulty holding pencils in their hands.

-Nearsightedness is occurring at an earlier age as a result of hand held computer games.  Brightness of electronic screens activates the retina and nerves behind the eye causing eye strain and head pain.  The “blue” light given off by electronic screens changes brain activity and function.

-“Tech neck” or “Text neck” has been given its name by chiropractors. This manifests as pain and limited muscle flexibility in the neck from too much  computer time.

-Children naturally use “play therapy” to make sense of a difficult situation.  Children in war-torn Syria play pretend games with good guys and bad guys.  Screen-time does not provide an outlet for kids to work out challenging issues, but creative play has been shown to aid children in making sense of their world.

-The majority of adults (56%) believe that any new technology is something to which children should be exposed without regard to negative consequences.  In fact, interactive books (e-books) are linked to lower levels of emergent literacy than traditional books.

Kids do not require eighteen years with a computer to know how to use one. It is estimated that an eighteen-year-old without any previous screen time can catch up to computer literacy in approximately two weeks.

-Nature-Deficit Disorder, coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in Nature, is a bit more frightening when one considers that children spend less time out-of-doors, developing less empathy with the planet that desperately needs our care.  And the less compassion they have, coupled with less inherent ability to be creative and imaginative, does not bode well for a generation that must render solutions for a warming climate.

-Time with electronic screens can become “biologically compelled habits”, leading to more viewing later on and difficulty resisting screens as children get older.

What Can Parents Do?

-Researchers at Harvard University have identified the state of the brain when  it is most able to create, imagine, and learn.  They call it “Neuroplasticity” and they have found it to occur when associated with one of the following four activities (The “good stuff”).  Seek out these activities:

  • Physical Exercise
  • Unstructured Play
  • Music
  • Numinous Activity (an activity that enables the participant to feel that they are a part of something larger than themselves. Perhaps religion, or laying upon the ocean beach and being consumed by ocean waves)

Participate in activities that provide happy memories:

Research identifies the highest probability of happy memories with:

  • Time spent with other people
  • Time spent outside
  • Activities that cost little or no money

-Reduce screen time to recommended levels:

Ages 0-18 months:  no screen time

Ages 3-18:  1-2 hours of quality programming per day

-Recognize TV and movie ratings and respect the recommendations

-Encourage as much “free play” as possible.  Children who are used to structured activities coupled with the ever-present option of “plugging-in” to an electronic device simply don’t get free, unstructured play.

-Provide outdoor play experiences.  Consider that approximately 1500 children are killed and 200,000 injured annually in vehicle accidents, 300 children under the age of 5 years drown annually—most while being supervised by their parents at the time, 1.25 million children under the age of six are unintentionally poisoned in their own home each year.  The CDC reports that approximately 500 children die each year due to accidental gun shootings.  American Lung Association reports that 430 children succumb to SIDS yearly as a result of second-hand smoke.  And only 50 children, nationally, are lost to kidnappings.  So, A CHILD IS TEN TIMES MORE LIKELY TO DIE FROM A GUNSHOT FROM A GUN PURCHASED TO PROTECT THE FAMILY THAN FROM BEING KIDNAPPED WHILE PLAYING OUTSIDE. We act on perceived threats, not real ones. We receive a more-than-realistic dose of violence through screen media. No one has been killed by an American Black Bear in California—ever! (And it’s the only wild bear left in our State.  We killed off all the Grizzlies.) Only 3 people have been killed by cougars in California in approximately 50 years.  While a kidnapping or murder is a tragedy and can be frightening to children and adults alike, the media’s relentless display of the same event morning, noon, and night for days on end can make us feel like the event has happened again and again.  Screen media tends to frighten us more even when our neighborhoods might be very safe indeed.  We need to move past the notion that danger lurks around every corner.

-The City of Sacramento recorded a drop in crime of 14 percent in 2013.  That followed a 10 percent drop the previous year.  29 murders in 2013 were the lowest since 1973.  CALIFORNIANS TODAY ENJOY A 50-YEAR LOW  IN VIOLENT CRIME AND MURDER, SAFER THAN ANY TIME SINCE 1962!  There were fewer rapes, robberies, burglaries, vehicle thefts,  and homicides.

-Limit cell phone use as it undermines face-to-face social interaction.

-Set limits on screen time:  TV, computers, hand-held devices, etc.

-Keep all electronic screens out of bedrooms.  Use a closet or lesser-used room to house the family television.

-Make dinner sacred.  No screens.  Encourage family conversation.

-No TV the last 30-90 minutes of the day.  Keep frightening images out of children’s heads just before bed-time and realize the potential of reduced melatonin, the brain chemical needed to induce sleep, may be inhibited by the “blue light” emitted from screens prior to bedtime.

-Consider eliminating TV and computer games from the home altogether if an addict is present.

-Provide screen-time choices so children feel they are participating in decisions.  Whether its 30 minutes or two hours a day, work with children to make good choices.

-Set up special events at home like “game night”(with board games),  “writing night”, “dancing parties”, etc. (power outage fun!)

-Make clear the variety of activities available to children when screens are not an option:  games and puzzles, playing with others, crafts and art projects, musical instruments, books, pets, outdoor play, helping prepare meals, etc.  Allow children to cook, garden, walk the dog, bike or hike as a family, etc.

-Make TV-viewing an intentional choice.  Choose what to watch ahead of time. Don’t allow the screens to control your life.  If you cannot manage it, get rid of it!

-Watch children’s TV and video with them so you can monitor what they are exposed to. (Hey, look, Dad, what they’re trying to sell to me now!)

-Don’t expect success in one day.  New habits generally take three weeks to adjust to.  A child who has a very difficult time if denied the option of “plugging in” 24/7, is probably most in need of scaling back, or perhaps eliminating screen time.  When children realize that parents will follow through, they will adapt to the new routine.  Boredom will spawn creativity.  In the end, you may have a child who will never be bored!  What extraordinary things will they do instead?  Read?  Write?  Play music? Paint? Draw? Ride a bike? Invite friends over?  Help with dinner or work in the garden?

-Lead by example.  Create screen-free days or “no drive” days or no-answering email or phone days.  Initiate a family walk after dinner or on Saturdays.  Recognize the possibility that screen addiction can happen to someone of any age.

-Recognize the value of talking, walking, singing, dancing, pointing out objects and concepts as your child comes across them.  No electronic device will do more to prepare your child for academics than you reading and talking to them.

Optimism About the Future

-The medical community has begun to take on the task of dealing with the addiction of video gaming.  More attention to negative screen-time is certainly possible.

-The pendulum is swinging back.  Play Summit, Free-Range Parenting, National Screen-free Week, etc., encompass a recognition that children need desperately to play instead of watch.        

 -The Internet is only 15 years old.  The culture must—and will—change, but it will take some time. (Consider that it was proven in 1954 by a couple of British scientists that cigarette smoking caused cancer.  More than 60 years later and California just raised the age for purchasing cigarettes to 21 this year.)

There are folks like the 2nd grade teacher in Texas (who gives no homework and directs her students to go outside and play) and many more that “get it”.  You will influence others who will influence others, etc.

Screen-time is being attacked from a wide variety of angles, including the fields of:  medicine, education, recreation, libraries, child advocates, parents, and many more.  Even Nickelodeon has participated with TV Turnoff days where they turn their station dark for a period of time and encourage children to go outside and play.

Piaget was correct:  the work of childhood is play!

We will get there.


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