Dr Aaron Frost gives some advice not only on how much screen time children should have access to, but also on what type of screen time causes the most problems.
How much screen time is too much ?
I get asked this question at least half a dozen times per week. Parents are worried about the amount of time their kids want to spend sitting in front of the TV, iPad, DS, PlayStation, Xbox and various other consoles and hand held devices. They often tell me things like, “my kids are absolutely feral after they spend a big chunk of time playing games”.
When I ask, "why don't you just remove the screens?", I get one or both of the following replies:
“I need the time, and leaving them on a computer to play games gives me a chance to catch up”,
“All my kids' friends are online, and this is how they communicate with each other, I don’t want him/her missing out”.
There are some real potential benefits of having technology in children’s lives, but it can often come at a cost. The challenge for todays’ parent is to figure out how to get the greatest benefits for the lowest costs.
Before I say anything further, it is worth highlighting that the American Academy of Paediatrics has released well researched guidelines clearly stating that two hours per day of screen time is the upper limit for a child. This is really helpful advice, and sets a good limit. But what I want to talk about in this article in what type of screen time rather than how much.
In my observations both as a parent and a child psychologist, there are three basic types of screen-based activities that a child engages in, and each appear to have different consequences.
The first is mindless screen time. This includes games such as candy crush, Plants vs Zombies, binge watching ABC for Kids, and most console games. Children spending large chunks of time engaged in mindless screen time will often seem most ‘feral’ immediately afterward. There are a two main reasons for this. Firstly, children engaged in mindless screen time are less likely to eat, drink and go to the toilet; emotions and behaviour in kids are driven by basic biology far more than most of us realise. Secondly, research conducted by Dr Grant Devilly and his colleagues found one of the main problems with mindless video games is that they don’t have a clear end point. When a child is reading a book, it is easy to put it down at the end of a page, however, when a child is killing zombies, or lining up shiny jewels there is no clear end. When they are finally forced off the game by their parents, children then experience high levels of anger and resentment. This is often where the “feral” mood sets in.
Mindless screen time should be avoided as much as possible, and it is up to parents to limit children’s exposure to this. Mindless video games are designed by their manufacturers to be compulsive, which is how they become best sellers. They are the junk food of screen time; a bit is ok every now and then, but too much too often is going to cause problems.
The second type of screen-based activity is engaged, and actualy involves the child’s brain being active. Some of these screen activities are educational, most are not, but the key point here is that the child is mentally stimulated and fully engaged. Please note that I am not a games reviewer, and do not endorse or have not been paid by any of these companies, but here are some examples to give you an idea of what to look for when shopping for games.
This game is aimed at younger children learning to read. It is engaging and educational, and designed to have small chunks of learning which matches the attention span of the children it is aimed at. There are lots of natural breaks, and it is easy to say to a child “come off the computer when this level is finished”.
Tiny Bang Story
This has been a recent discovery for our family. It involves a beautifully hand drawn world that has experienced a tiny explosion that has jumbled up all of the technology. The task of the child is to find all of the pieces and to put the world back together, one level at a time. It involves lots of lateral thinking, creative problem solving, and again there are many natural breaks for the child to step away form the screen.
This game involves a series of deceptively simple puzzles. In each puzzle, the child has to move a ball from its start point to an end point by drawing things. Everything they draw has real properties in physics. For example, if you draw a square in the air, gravity will make it drop the ground. If the square hits another object on the way down, this will cause the object it hits to move relative to the length of the drop and the size of the object. Children have to figure out how to solve each puzzle using the properties of the objects they draw. Once again, their brain is engaged, and there are lots of natural breaks incorporated.
This type of active screen time appears to be far less unhealthy for children (up to the time limits above). They are less likely to have huge tantrums when finishing, and the compulsive nature to their play is greatly reduced. These games are also excellent as they offer great opportunities for you and your child to do something together. You would be amazed at how quickly the entire family will get involved in trying to figure out how to push a tiny red ball up a hill.
The final type of screen time is creative, and involves children using their imagination to create things using a computer. Examples include Crayola DigiTools, iMovie, Photoshop, Lego Island and even a game like Minecraft. The key element to all of these games is that the child uses their imagination and is creating things. When a child is using one of these applications, their behaviour afterward appears to be no worse than if they had spent an hour drawing pictures or painting. Obviously, it is important that computer based creativity doesn’t replace real world creativity, but these types of screen based activity should be looked at more in the light of a modern version of arts and craft.
However, even these type of activities don’t always get a completely clean bill of health. Some of these activities have a multiplayer component which can be just as addictive as any mindless computer game. While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with multiplayer games, the social element draws some children (especially those who are less socially successful in real life) into spending far more time on these games than they had intended, and this can lead to them becoming very compulsive.
They key point here is that as parents it is important for us to learn about what our kids are playing. What they are playing is at least as important as how long they are playing. It is worth spending the time getting to understand the games they are interested in and what it is about these games that is attractive. Think about the mix of mindless games, vs creative and engaged games, and notice how your child reacts to both long and short periods of playing these games. Who knows, you might find a game you both enjoy, which can become a real relationship building activity for you.
Please note: Aaron has not received any kind of payment for his opinions regarding these particular products.