Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Every Parent Must Make Their Own Decisions About Screen Time

I watched television as a kid. I started watching on a black and white Zenith. I remember when we bought our family's second set, a state-of-the-art color TV. There were four channels, five if you were lucky in adjusting the UHF knob, and children's programming was limited to Saturday mornings and a couple hours right after school. The only other sort of screens we knew about were at the movie theater.

I feel like we were more or less typical for our neighborhood, watching maybe an hour a day. It's not that we wouldn't have liked to watch more, but there just wasn't anything we found all that compelling. For a time, Batman was on in the afternoons, followed by the boring news, which was okay with us because after such an exciting half hour we were eager to don our capes (dad's dress shirt buttoned around the neck) and meet our friends outdoors to re-enact what we had just seen. Things have obviously changed. Today it's possible for kids to spend all day, every day in front of screens that deliver exactly what they want, when they want it.

Over the weekend, the program 60 Minutes reported on the early results from a new $300 million study financed by the National Institutes of Health. The goal of the study is to better understand the impact of all sorts of external influences on brain development; everything from drug and alcohol use to concussions, including the affect of screen time. It's an important thing for us to be seriously investigating. Screens have proliferated dramatically over the last couple decades, an explosion in technology with which research is only now just beginning to catch up, and given the necessity for longitudinal studies, we are still decades away from anything approaching definitive results. Up to now, the research that has been done on screen time, and particularly what people are calling "addiction," has presented a mixed bag of results, with some showing negative impacts and others showing none. Some have even indicated that there are benefits of screen time under certain circumstances. And, honestly, if these early results are any indication, this new study is no different . . . at least so far.

You can read the piece for yourself, but the bottom line is that there are reasons to worry and reasons to not worry. The truth, as it has been since I was a boy, is that we are all subjects in this grand human experiment with technology.

I suspect that if and when we ever get to the bottom of this, we'll discover that screen time impacts different people in different ways, that some, maybe even most, of us can engage with relative impunity, while others pay a price, even a steep one. One thing I do know, however, is that six hours a day (which is approximately the average for America's young children) is entirely too much. This is not a statement about technology or content, but rather that it is a physically sedentary activity, one that may engage the brain, one that may even support social and emotional learning, but also one in which children are largely indoors, slumped in a sofa while their muscles atrophy. Indeed, that's what mom would say as she chased us outdoors back in the 60's, "Get outside, get some fresh air, and move your bodies."

My own belief is that all this screen time is causing some level of brain damage, at least to some of us, and there is no doubt that it is changing our brains for better or worse (which is also true of everything we experience) but by the time we get to the bottom of it, screens will be as old time-y as black and white Zeniths. I'm not throwing up my hands, I'm just being realistic about the science keeping up with the pace of technology. In the meantime, I try to stay educated, then follow my instincts, values, and experience. One thing we do know for a fact is that humans need to move their bodies in order to be their best selves, they need regular, sustained exercise, and the younger we are the more we need: it's necessary for both the body and the brain, which are, in fact, one and the same.

Every parent must make their own decisions about screen time. I will not call you a "lazy parent" because you hand your kid the iPhone once in awhile. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. If you feel like it's too much, it's too much. If you feel like your kid is getting enough exercise, then that's the important thing, the thing we know. Personally, I find life more fulfilling when I limit my time in front of screens, when I move my body and interact directly with the other humans. I think that's true for most of us, but all I have right now are my own anecdotes and a mixed bag of science . . . for now.

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