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Screens here, screens there….screens everywhere!

By Betsy Brown Braun

Today’s children are growing up in a screen dominated world. They can watch their favorite programs wherever and whenever they want: on cell phones, on miniature DVD players, on MP3 players, on computers, in the family car. At the doctor’s office, the gas station, the bank, and even in the grocery cart, their attention is drawn in by screens, lest they be bored or lest the advertisers miss an opportunity. Screens are everywhere, and they are stealing our children!

So what’s wrong with it anyway? Truth be told, it’s not what’s on the screens that is necessarily so bad; it’s what children are not doing when they are watching a screen that is the problem. Children are not engaging in the world.

Waiting at a local restaurant one night recently, I watched a family arrive and settle in for dinner. Mommy took a tiny portable DVD from her purse and set it up right in front of her daughter, approximately age six. Dad ordered, and then both parents got to work on their BlackBerrys. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Not a word passed between them. Not a single “How was your day?” or “Look at that bird sitting on the railing.” That was their family dining experience, each watching a different screen while eating.

What were the lessons for the child? First and foremost, she learned that family dinners out aren’t about the family. She learned that interacting with family is not only unimportant but it’s far less entertaining than watching a screen. She learned that instead of entertaining herself, or having a conversation, or taking in the world around her, she needs a screen for entertainment. By virtue of her mommy setting up her DVD player, she learned that watching a screen is what she’s supposed to be doing. And she learned that eating isn’t done for its own sake; it’s just something you do while you are doing something else!

Children who spend too much time in front of screens miss out on a whole lot of life. They miss opportunities to observe and to explore. They miss opportunities to imagine and create. They miss opportunities to listen to their own thoughts. They miss opportunities to be bored...and that’s where the creativity and initiative come from. And they certainly miss opportunities to interact with real people – to argue, to fight, to tease, to wait your turn, to compromise, to solve problems, to share silliness, joy, and laughter.  Children who don’t interact with the world don’t learn to delay gratification, to tolerate disappointment or frustration.

It’s not that all the stuff on the screens is so bad. No – it’s that the world is filling up with screens and, like a magnet, they are drawing our children away from the business at hand: interacting with the world in order to grow up.  

Here are some recommendations you might think about as you manage your child’s exposure to screens:

  • Have specific limits on the amount of screen time. Remember, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children younger than two years. For the 3 and 4-year old, a half hour a day is plenty. Continue to limit the amount of time for the 5-year old on up. Invite input the older the child gets, but have limits!
  • Screens have no place during meal times.
  • Screen time is not for playdates.
  • Screen time happens after responsibilities are met.
  • Screen time is a privilege, not a God given right.
  • Make sure you choose screen programs and activities that support what your child is learning.
  • Look for sites and programs that encourage creative thought and self expression.
  • Participate in your child’s screen time – visit great sites together and uncover new and joint interests to enhance your bond and communication.
  • Save your screens for the long haul. The car video is only for that long trip, and only after you have exhausted all the car games.

Betsy Brown Braun, best selling author of the award winning Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents (HarperCollins), is a child development and behavior specialist, parent educator, multiple birth parenting consultant and founder of Parenting Pathways, Inc. She is also the mom of adult triplets and is the new guest columnist of The Online Mom.

Comment by Anita, posted 5/8/2009, 6:34 PM:

Before I became a parent, I was determined to provide a "screen free" environment for my child. How hard could it be? IT'S SO HARD! When she showed interest in Sesame street and other kid shows, we thought " how cute!" i didn't realize how addicting they are given the media overload outside the home. Now we find ourselves having to have TV limits! Thanks for the timely advice and reminding me why its so important!
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