Screen Time: when, why not and how much
When Maria Montessori developed the tools and techniques that define her century-old method of education, the idea of moving pictures was in its infancy. By the time of her death in 1952, televisions were beginning to appear in homes. While Maria Montessori didn’t have any experience with the variety and volume of screen opportunities available today, her thoughts on brain development and movement have always been clear:
“Watching a child makes it obvious that the development of his mind comes through his movements.”
Among modern experts, though, - screen time is still a hotly debated topic. How much screen time should kids be getting? Should they even get any screen time at all? Does it make someone a bad parent/caregiver for giving them screen time? Janet Lansbury recently sat down with Dr. Meghan Owens, psychologist and professor of counseling and infant and child development at Florida International and Penn State universities. Dr. Owens and her husband Adam run ScreenFreeParenting, a blog that gives research on delayed screen time and has tips, advice, and activities to keep screens from becoming the go-to in downtimes.
Dr. Owens says she got pulled into screen time research through her frustration with electronics and games and things that blip, beep, and generally make too much noise. While she admits that nothing anyone does will ever be as flashy as most of what the internet or any popular streaming services have to offer, she does believe that limited or no screen time will help all children with language and attention.
The five main areas she’s concerned about in regards to development and behavior are sleep, obesity, attention, language ability, and emotional control. She has hundreds of studies and hours of analysis that show that even an hour of screen time can cause later bedtimes, fewer hours of sleep, less restful sleep, an increase in behavioral and attention problems in school-aged children, and a decrease in language acquisition for infants. According to Dr. Owens:
Each hour of educational baby videos, DVDs, is associated with six to eight fewer words in those babies even though the videos are designed to teach those words. The research is really kind of clear for very young children that they don’t learn a great deal from screens even though that’s often the parent’s hope, understandably so, because that’s what advertised to them. (2016)
As a part of Owens’ research, she has come to some conclusions about why a parent or caregiver might be inclined to give screen time over other interactions: she believes that most parents are looking for a break or just need some quiet time to focus on something.
Unfortunately, that means kids are missing out on the opportunity to be bored, which in turn affects their ability to play independently and tap into their imaginations.
Megan and Adam also make a point that they wish there was more research on the positive effects of limiting screen time or using screens as family bonding time:
We haven’t historically done a lot of research on when things are going well. Positive psychology, which is a new movement to try to do more research on those things but the majority of the research is on the negative outcomes. That’s a shame because we know from a behavioral standpoint, we would do much better to tell parents things that they can do instead. Everybody would prefer to be told, “Hey, here’s this great thing you can do,” versus, “Here’s this terrible thing and you need to stop doing it.” We don’t like to be told not to do things. Our children don’t like it and we as adults don’t like either. (Dr. Owens 2016)
Alarmingly, research is showing that children are getting screen time younger and younger. In the 1970s, when it became much more commonplace for a household to have a TV, the average child wasn’t getting any screen time until around age 4 and a half. A study in 2012 (sic) showed screen time is starting around age 4 months now. Children are being hardwired to screen habits before they can even speak to ask for it.
So what can be done to help? Limiting screen time, if not removing it entirely, or utilizing it for a family bonding experience can be a big help. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests delaying screen use until at least 2 years of age, and then “it might help parents more if we can focus on all the positives that happen when they do wait to introduce screens ... very gradually and thoughtfully” (Lansbury 2016) More information can be found on the Owens’ website, ScreenFreeParenting, or on the episode of Janet Lansbury’s podcast Unruffled that Megan and Adam appeared.