Developing minds and screen time

Recently I have had a few parents speak to me about their child’s behaviour around screen usage. Exposure to screens, in our youngsters, has become increasingly more common over the past several years and then of course COVID hit and screen time seemingly took over our worlds. Despite our good intentions, screen usage became a necessity for learning remotely in addition to being utilized on the regular for amusement and distraction. We were trying to keep our children connected, trying to give them some fun in our new ‘boring’ and isolated lives. We also required it many times to keep them occupied while we worked from home. Whatever the reason, it happened and now we have a whole generation of families paying the price. Many parents ask why their children get so angry now when screen time is limited or taken away all together. They wonder why their child’s personality seems to have taken a nosedive in many cases and parents are left feeling powerless and out of control. To be sure, every situation is different, and giving blanket advice is not necessarily the right path to take on this, but while speaking to parents I couldn’t help but remember something that I wrote in a Principal’s Message a few years ago. I dug it out of the archives (it was written in April of 2017), and I think it may be exactly the right time for a reshare. When reading it, keep in mind that it was written three years before COVID hijacked our lives, but I do think that there is a fair bit in it that everyone may find helpful.   

As (almost) empty nesters, Don and I enjoy eating out a fair bit. One thing that has really hit me recently is that children rarely misbehave in restaurants anymore. When my children were young it was always a struggle to get them to sit politely, while we were waiting to be served, throughout the meal and then waiting again for the bill. It always seemed like such a small reward for so much hard work! To be honest, at that time, ours, like most families, resorted to using fast food restaurants as their destination of choice for family night out. And no wonder! Fast and kid-friendly, parents didn’t have to worry about disturbing other diners and their own stress level remained in an acceptable zone. This no longer seems to be the case. Parents generally can take their children to any restaurant, even some that would be considered less kid-friendly and upscale, without too much fanfare. So why are today’s young diners doing so well? Are they better behaved, or do parents have better control over their children’s behaviour, than say 20 years ago? Not likely. (I say this with a smile on my face and a wink in my eye). This remarkable change seems to be, in large part, thanks to technology. The reason we don’t hear young children wreaking havoc in restaurants any more is that they are all glued to either their parents’ smart phones or indeed their very own iPads or tablets. Even babes in strollers are being amused by videos, movies and electronic games while the adults leisurely dine and enjoy their time out of the house.   

At first glance, this advancement seems absolutely brilliant and very attractive, but like anything that appears too good to be true it is indeed too good to be true. Researchers are finding that screen time for children could be doing more harm than good. Children’s growing brains are much more sensitive to electronics use than most of us realize. It doesn’t take much electronic stimulation to throw a sensitive and still-developing brain off track.    

A recent article in the New York Post, where a psychologist referred to excessive screen time as ‘digital heroine’, caused quite a stir. The article focused on the story of a very young boy who became hooked on video games and screen time to such a degree that it was affecting every aspect of his young life. Pretty scary stuff! There were both supporters and naysayers to the extreme language the author chose to use and the comparison he made of excessive screen use to drug addiction. The debate continues, but at the very least we should regard such articles as cautionary tales and act accordingly.   

 Here is what we need to know. Children’s healthy development involves social interaction, creative imaginative play and an engagement with the real, natural world. Immersion in too much screen time generally dampens and stunts those developmental processes. Addictive escape is more likely to happen with excessive screen time so it is our job to prevent our youngsters from getting hooked on screens to begin with. Limiting screen time in young people is our first defense. If we notice our children tethered to their electronic devices, unwilling to put them down when instructed to do so, agitated, wired but tired, or inattentive to everything around them but what is on the screen, it is an indication that an electronic intervention may be called for. Taking a break from the use of screens for a period of time actually allows the nervous system to return to a more natural state and will help children in so many areas of their development moving forward. We should have honest discussions with our children about why we are limiting their screen access and support them by doing the same ourselves. Remember, our children may not always listen to us, but they are always watching us!   

For the sake of peaceful restaurant experiences, tolerable plane rides and yes-even fun Fridays at After Care, electronic use in children doesn’t need to be abolished entirely but we should all be cognizant of the potential dangers involved in too much screen time for the young, growing minds in our life and take any steps necessary to prevent things from getting out of hand. While we are at it, it’s probably a good idea to monitor our own screen use. Tech free zones and tech free times are actually a good idea for all of us!”  
Principal’s Message, April 2017 

Obviously, all this advice had to more or less go out the window when COVID hit in March of 2020. In so many ways, technology is what saved us during these unprecedented times. We needed it to keep our youngsters learning and yes, even happy, at times. But we are now paying a big price and before it gets any worse it may be time to heed those warnings that I wrote about in 2017 and get our children back to experiencing life in the real world. It may be painful at first, like any intervention for change, but it will definitely be worth it. Your child’s future brain will thank you! 


Marie Bates