Our red-headed rocket is a 7-year-old with boundless energy, a quick wit, outstanding intellect, and superb reading skills. Funny and entertaining, he is an interactive delight.
That is, until he gets a handheld video game in his hands. Then the only things interacting are his fingers and his mind. He is gone (even when he is right beside us)! It takes three loud calls of “Morgan!” to get him to blink.
Game Boy is Morgan’s preferred focus. It would virtually be his world – or be his virtual world – if we let it. We will not. We see what some parents see, but what far too many parents do not comprehend. There is an invasion of homes in progress. Flat-screened communications, from handheld to giant screen, have homes under attack. The Bible has something to say about this battle: “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2).
Someone is shaping your child’s mind. Is it you? Or are you surrendering too much of your influence to game makers, web sites, and the television and movie industries? Those who study the media culture now group television, computer, and video game viewing into the expression of screen time.
“Screen time should be just like anything else children deal with – parents need to monitor it,” says Blois Olson, spokesman for the National Institute on Media and the Family and father of two small children. “Watch what your kids watch. Video games, in particular, are not inherently bad. The issue is whether it is age-appropriate, content-appropriate, and whether it matches the family’s values. But, it must be noted that the ratings standards have slipped. What is rated as ‘M’ (for mature audiences) today was ‘Adult Only’ three to five years ago, and the reason is that ‘adult only’ games will not get retail coverage.”
While home screen time increases, standards decline. The combination is dangerous. The national Institute on Media and the Family monitors, reviews, and sponsors studies of the effects of screen time. “We know violent media leads to more aggression in children, especially younger boys,” Olson says. “We know that kids who have televisions in their bedrooms do more poorly in school than children who don’t, …Video games are interactive media. The prefrontal cortex is the brain center. This area also is the area that develops slower in young men than women. Science has shown that overexposure slows the prefrontal cortex which specifically deals with judgment. So there is beginning to be a body of evidence showing that overexposure to media in children leads to slower development or behavior development that doesn’t meet social norms.”
OK, scary enough. So what do you do about it? Remember, screen time is morally neutral, so do not lose sight of its value. Examine the problems and solutions (see below) to find some tools to apply these concepts practically to parenting.
Simple Problems, Simple Solutions
Problem 1: Letting children have screen time whenever they want.
This leads to “physical, social, and intellectual issues.” Olson says “This means kids are less physically active, so there is an increased risk of childhood obesity. The average child between 5 and 12 spends between 28 and 35 hours of screen time per week.”
Solution: Dr. Rob Gosselin, a clinical psychologist says that balance and moderation are the keys. “I think parents sometimes are shy about setting firm limits. It’s one of the things that can be a real danger in society, and we must recognize it should be limited. Be creative and sit down and talk about it as a family so you have a plan together and everyone understands it.”
How much is enough? It is arbitrary, but when it is a beautiful day and your child wants nothing to do with the backyard, playground, or ball field, odds are you are out of balance. My son frequently hears, “You can play one hour of video games today, but it’s a beautiful day, so get outside first!”
Problem 2: Letting screen time replace relationship time
“The biggest problem I see is how [screen time] can interfere with relationship development,” says Gosselin. “Computers, video games, and TV have at times become a substitute for relationships.” Gosselin reminds parents that childhood is where most of a person’s identity is formed. “And if relationship is lacking, it’s going to damage relationship formation, and that’s going to lead to potential problems.”
Solution: Intentionally facilitate interaction. Olson uses the example of a mom with three children, one of whom is in swim practice while the other two wait with her. Mom watches practice, but the children play video games. Reverting to video games might be “letting kids check out whenever they want to when maybe they should interact,” Olson says. Many family communication times have been replaced by individual video-game play.
Problem 3: Parents spending too much screen time
“I’ve seen kids who were upset that their parents were spending too much time playing on the computer,” Olson says. “The model of the parent is very important.”
Solution: Parents should have self-imposed limits. When the screen becomes a primary companion or entertainer, parents damage relationships with their children and their spouses. Gosseln says, “We should teach children how to use screen time to help with homework. Afterwards, they can have some video game (or entertaining) screen time. We need to help kids understand that there are limits and that screen time is a priviledge.”