What is Optimal Screen Exposure for Kids (and Us Too)?

Friday, September 18, 2015 · Leave a comment

screen-time-dangers-537x402As a Dad of 3 young boys I’m always interested in what the latest research says on how we should be introducing screens to our kids. Screens are a part of daily life now for almost everyone, they’re not going away, nor should they. Most adults don’t have a good handle on their screen use, so it’s easy to wonder how can we even be a model to our kids? Even so, knowledge is power and so I want to share some interesting research with you that gives some answers to the question:

Is it possible to overstimulate the developing brain?

Dmitri Christakis is a pediatrician, parent and researcher who had looked into this quite a bit. He reminds us that watching screens not too long ago wasn’t something we introduced to kids until later in life. At the moment, the average 5 year old is engaged with screens about 4 hours per day.

Additionally, the content they are exposed to is far more fast paced then ever which keeps them engaged, but can have major negative impacts on their ability to pay attention. Compare past programs like Mr. Rogers with current cartoon programs like Pokemon or Powder Puff Girls.

In a Tedx talk Christakis says, “Prolonged exposure to rapid change can pre-condition the mind to expect high levels of input which leads to inattention later on in life. “

Here’s the Tedx talk to watch (Warning: Images will not be rapidly changing, so if your brain has had prolonged exposure to screens you may not have the attention span to watch this – just kidding – sort of).

What does the research say?

Christakis’ research shows that the more television kids watch before the age of three, the more attention problems they have at school.

However, the more you read to a child, sing to them or take them to interactive stimulating places like museums (aka cognitive stimulation), the more you can reduce attention problems late in life. They found that each hour of cognitive stimulation reduced chances of attentional problems by 30%.

One fascinating study took mice and overstimulated them to a television-like environment for 6 hours a day for 42 days. Ten days after this they assessed the mice’s behavior. They found that compared to a control group, the overstimulated mice were more hyperactive, had more impaired short term memory and didn’t seem to engage novel objects as long.

Christakis points out that novelty is a source of healthy learning. One thing he doesn’t point out which is critical is that engaging novel things in life is also a source of healthy brain plasticity and happiness.

The bottom line

Playing with screens on a limited-basis is okay (seemingly after age 3 is best), but it’s critical to pay attention to what the content is on the screens (is it too fast paced?). Most importantly, it’s essential to make sure kids are getting adequate play and this leads to better language skills, better social skills and healthier brain development.

We’d be wise to apply this science to our own lives too!

Warmly,

Elisha

Author of Uncovering Happiness and co-author of MBSR Every Day

Adapted from Mindfulness and Psychotherapy

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