Screen time and the child brain: the golden middle?

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When I was a child, screen time was a luxury. As little kids, we had only the screen of the TV to stare at, and even that came at about 5 years old. I can vividly remember our first color TV, where channels had to be switched by hand, rotating a very stubborn heavy wheel. Needless to say, screen time was limited by the scarcity of content that was interesting for the little ones. There were no dedicated channels with 24/7 cartoons until my family got the so called ‘satellite’ TV and I discovered cartoon network. Until then, it was noted in my head that at 8:30 in the evening, the national channel would have a dedicated program for kids where bears would talk and little rabbits would sing. It was new, it was exciting, it was our TV time. Parents could not switch the channel and I’d be absorbing every sound and color.

My adolescence came with blockbuster movies and the entire village gathering in front of my grandmother’s color TV to watch the next episode of some Spanish soap opera. A bonding time I would say. Everyone would comment, everyone would predict the next move. And we’d laugh or be angry that the episode ended leaving everyone guessing if Maria-Huanita is alive or not.

With that in mind, millennial kids are fortunate I must say. Fortunate to discover technology at the right time when their brain was already formed and where screen time could enhance, rather than damage, its activity. Our parents are fortunate as well, to not have had the struggle of deciding how much time we should be allowed to stay in front of the TV screen and wondering if they are doing the right thing.

As a young first time parent, screen time is an inevitable subject I knew I had to study, especially after noticing one day how my little one was playing on the floor and suddenly was quiet and absent. Yes, she was watching TV. Although we only have the TV on to watch some news, that very second, when I noticed her being absorbed by the screen, I’ve shut it down and began my research.

The TV, the tablet, the mobile phone, the laptop, the kindle, you name it, these are the luminescent devices that are meant to fill the gaps in our lives. Yet, how do they affect the brain of the small ones? The answer, you may have guessed, is complex and elaborate, as one would assume it depends on age, amount of time spent in front of the screen and content.

Through my readings and podcasts, I have discovered quite a few insights. If you prefer clarity and structure, I believe you would also like Michael Gurian. For me, he was very good at showing via scientific explanation, the golden middle on the subject of screen time for children. As such, I’ve compiled a short abstract below for busy parents that are interested in the subject:

- For children 0–2 years old, screen time should be minimum. It can be limited to Skype chats with grandparents, but no more than that. The reason behind are the images are moving too fast for the brain this young and can thus produce damage through over-stimulation.

- For 3–5 years old, one and a half hour should be plenty. It is however recommended that you pay attention to the content that is being watched. Content that has a lot of drama, animated movies implying death for instance, provokes anxiety in children this age given that they are not yet able to classify it.

- For age 6–9, the parent should take into consideration that a lot of schools are moving towards digital learning, thus, there is going to be more screen time. It is therefore advised that you use your judgement on how much screen time you allow to your kid at home.

- Age 11–15 is a crucial time as Michael Guerin puts it. During this period, the brain is involved in pruning. It means that the brain gets rid of the cells which are not activated via frequent actions. It is thus pivotal that the child is involved in various activities which develop the brain. If the kid is spending 8hrs in front of the screen, it is this type of activity the brain is going to keep stored.

- Age 14–17, middle adolescence, is the right age to give children smartphones. However, screen time should still be monitored and skills development encouraged.

It is up to you, as a parent, to make the right decision on how you nurture the brain of your children. Yet I am certain, that all of us are willing to raise little happy people. And even without much research, every parent’s gut feeling tells them that too much time on the luminescent devices is no good for anyone.

Take care of the little ones, they are so fragile.