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Sinister Screens

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By Dan Gordon '85

Published Jul 1, 2017 8:00 AM


Kids spend an average of seven hours a day staring at electronic screens just for entertainment. What is the effect on their developing brains?


Illustration by Dan Bejar.

“When I was your age …” is a familiar refrain to any child. People who grew up in a bygone era remember when parents and grandparents delivered the second half of that sentence with some version of a five-mile walk to school, uphill and through the snow, possibly without shoes. In the modern version, exasperated parents look disapprovingly at children who spend hours on their PlayStation, mesmerized, pausing only to check their phones for texts and social media updates. “When I was your age,” we scold, “we used to go outside and play.”

In releasing new guidelines for children’s screen time last fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics noted that kids are spending an average of seven hours a day staring at TVs, computers, tablets, phones and other electronic devices (and before you bring up the educational applications of technology, that statistic covers only the entertainment uses). To what effect? In China and South Korea, Internet addiction has been labeled a clinical disorder and is viewed as a significant public health threat. Though the U.S. is not there yet, research on the impact of excessive screen time on the developing mind seems ominous enough. Brain-imaging studies have shown that the dopamine released when users are getting their technology fix is akin to what is seen in other forms of addiction — one of the reasons Peter Whybrow, director of UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, has referred to digital technology as “electronic cocaine.”

Pedro Noguera, distinguished professor in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies at UCLA, is concerned about how all of this is affecting our kids’ social growth. A sociologist who studies how social and economic trends influence schools, Noguera has his own “When I was your age …” story.

“When I was a kid, we would go out and play baseball,” he says. “There was no adult, and you had to make your own teams and set the rules. That doesn’t happen as much today. Kids are spending most of their time in structured activities controlled by adults or in front of screens. The kind of learning and discovery that occurs when you have unstructured time for playing has been greatly reduced, and it’s hard to know how a child’s socialization and imagination are affected by that.”

Noguera, a former classroom teacher with five children of his own, offers the following advice for parents concerned about digital overload:

Read the Warning Signs

If your child becomes irritable or downright angry when forced to spend time away from the screens, take it as a hint that there’s a problem. “We see quite a bit of that, and it suggests an emotional attachment to the technology,” Noguera says. “That’s why it’s important for both schools and parents to place limits on the amount of time kids spend on these devices.”

Monitor Time and Type

Noguera believes parents are more culpable than schools in allowing unfettered screen access. A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study bears him out: Two-thirds of parents reported setting no limits on their children’s daily tech time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping screens out of a child’s life until age 2, permitting no more than an hour a day for children ages 2-5, and setting “reasonable” limits starting at age 6, along with monitoring the types of media used to ensure they are age-appropriate.

Screen Out Sleep Loss

If your child continues to respond to his or her smartphone, even in bed, that’s another indication that you might need to intervene. “Kids have computers and phones in their rooms, they’re on their devices late at night, and a lot of them are sleep-deprived because of it,” Noguera says.

Set an Example

Let’s face it, we adults love our screens, too — who among us hasn’t used a TV or device to babysit so that we can have our own uninterrupted screen time? But if we’re constantly checking our phones while we’re with our kids, it doesn’t go unnoticed. “Parents should model appropriate behavior and follow the limits they set for their children, which includes deciding that during certain times no devices are allowed,” Noguera says. “If you’re texting during meals after you’ve told your kids not to, they see the hypocrisy right away.”

Open the Dialogue

As any parent knows, if you simply forbid something because “it’s not good for you,” the taboo nature of the content can enhance its appeal. “It’s very important for parents and educators to help children develop a critical perspective toward media, especially online,” Noguera says. “Kids are bombarded with information — often in subtle forms — through games, and they are very impressionable, especially when they’re young. If they’re playing a violent game, we should talk to them about what they make of these shootings. In some cases, critiquing the content can be more effective than simply saying, ‘You’re not watching it.’”

Encourage In-Person Interactions

When children are absorbed in their screens — even if to interact with others — they’re not developing social skills, Noguera notes. He also points to research hinting that the risk of social isolation and depression goes up as children substitute screen use for face-to-face contact. Preventing them from getting to that point might require cultivating their interest in nonscreen social activities; if it helps to overcome the child’s sedentary tendencies, all the better. Get-togethers should be prioritized over exchanges via text and social media, Noguera says. “And in my home, whenever we have a visitor, we stop and talk to that person and we stay off of our phones.”

Don't Assume Tech Is the Best Teacher

It’s hard to argue against technology as a tool for learning, but we shouldn’t assume that if a device is on when our child is in the classroom or engaged in homework, all’s well. “People think that just because there’s a machine involved it’s innovative, but in many schools the applications aren’t all that creative, and they come at the expense of other activities that might be more impactful,” Noguera says. “I saw a teacher bring a hermit crab to her first-grade classroom, and she had all the students’ attention. And let’s not forget how much fun reading a book can be for a kid.”

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