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Screen time unkind for the developing mind

Before we deal with our children’s screen addictions, we first have to take a good honest look at our own screen dependency. 
A five-year-old boy using a tablet.

We are in it together.  We are all affected. We are not sure what to do about it or how to navigate this in a healthy way. We complain about it to others who are going through it too.  I am referring to how much screen has infiltrated our culture and taken over our children.

How, in such a relatively short period of time, has our culture changed so much? For the past many generations, kids went outside to play. They sought out their friends and went exploring in nature, or played games, or got involved with sports.  Not so long before that (and still in many developing countries) children had to go out to work in the fields, factories or coal mines to help support their families. I am happy to live in a western culture where my children don’t have to be breadwinners, but I encourage all parents to have a good look at the increasing issues that are affecting our families due to excessive screen use in our children.

There are physiological issues that result from too much time spent in front of a screen such as lack of sleep, speech delays, lack of exercise, obesity, eyesight issues, posture and muscular issues (heads chronically bent over or slouching in a chair), muscle atrophy etc. 

There are many psychological issues including poor social and communication skills, irritability, depression, anxiety, loss of self esteem, addiction and physical disconnection from other people (and with the natural environment). The constant stimulation of screen can also impair the development of imagination, creativity and problem-solving abilities. ‘Problematic Media Use’ and ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’ are a couple relatively new terms to label screen overuse and screen addiction.  This link with take you to a good in-depth article on gaming addiction.

Following are some signs that may indicate your child has an unhealthy attachment to screen: 

  • Is screen (media or gaming…) all your child seems to thinks about or talk about with friends?
  • Has your child given up on sports activities that they used to enjoy, replacing them with screen?
  • Is screen (gaming or social media) all your child wants to do with their friends (is it the top popular activity) and is their screen use increasing?
  • Would your child rather visit friends through their media device than in person?
  • Is friend circle mainly online? Are you concerned about potential predatory relationships with online friends they haven’t met in person?
  • Does your child become frustrated when he/she cannot use screen or react negatively when it is time to stop? Does the intensity of their reaction worry you?
  • Does your child feel better after a bad day when they get to use screen and is this the only thing that seems to soothe them?
  • Does your child sneak screen and disregard rules around screen use?
  • Is screen the only way you can motivate your child (use as a reward with use or punish by removal)?
  • Do you notice a change in personality that you attribute to excessive screen use?
  • Are your children’s mental health symptoms (ADHD, ODD, OCD, ASD…) exacerbated with screen use?
  • Does screen use seem to affect family / friend relationships and interfere with family activities (not joining in on family events or coming to dinner)?
  • Do you notice an increase in parent / child conflict due to screen use?
  • Does your child lack enough sleep or neglect personal hygiene?  Is your child too distracted by their activities on screen to take care of their basic needs?
  • Does screen appear to affect your child’s health in any way?
  • Do you feel there is a great imbalance in your home when it comes to screen use, but feel powerless to change it due to strong resistance from your child or lack of support from other adults in your family or social circle?

If we recognize our situation in the previous questions, it may be time to take a good look at the screen health of our family.  To do so, we first need to assess the historical factors of how we got here:  Why did we plug our kids in, in the first place? Most of us have done it - given our toddler or child a device to play with to keep them occupied and out of our hair. And it worked too well. We justified plugging our kids into these devices and marvelled at how adept they were with them, saying things like “They will have a future in this” and believing they were gifted in some way. We may have even thought we were doing them a favour and getting them started early.  At a certain age, our kids (mainly our boys) wanted to play more exciting action-packed games, and we gave in to their pleading.  Sure, they may have been violent in nature but wasn’t that what all the kids were playing? Did we want our kids to be the social outcasts who didn’t get to play?  

We didn’t realize that in succumbing to this pressure without a secure plan in place around healthy, safe use and limits, we set our kids up for screen issues such as addiction and the above-mentioned problems. Not to mention the long-term effects of media violence on their psyche. (I will cover this in another article.)  In our defense as parents, this is a new social problem and we did not know this was going to happen.

Before we deal with our children’s screen addictions, we first have to take a good honest look at our own screen dependency.  We are so plugged in as a culture that many of us have forgotten how to connect with each other, with our kids, with nature and with our own psyche. It feels like a normal & natural thing to do to hand our child a device to keep them occupied, entertained, and prevent their (oh so dreaded) boredom.  Remember when we complained about being bored? Our parents gave us a chore, told us to read a book or do our homework, or sent us outside - no other options.  Why are we so afraid that our children would be bored today? Isn’t it part of a healthy mind to explore creative areas of interest? I firmly believe that screen robs creativity.

In the future, I think we may look at this period of humanity and wonder how we let ourselves get so distracted and hooked on the various technological forms of entertainment. Hopefully we will recognize the real cost to our culture’s screen / gaming addictions and willingly implement screen limitations and the need for routine unplugging. I am hoping new parents will educate themselves and take heed of the many mistakes made by my generation when it comes to healthy screen use.  As parents, we are in this together and we need to support each other in finding healthy alternatives.  Space limits me from examining possible solutions to this dilemma, but I will cover some suggestions in my next article.

Claire Nielsen is a health coach, author, public speaker and founder of The information provided in the above article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional health and medical advice. Please consult a doctor or healthcare provider if you're seeking medical advice, diagnoses and/or treatment