Turning Off: Video Games, Screen Time, and Children

First, we talked about the difference between using games for good and when gaming crosses a line into harmful behavior. We explored the idea of addiction further, and even took on topics like whether video games can really make a person violent.

I even went on a rant about media and the increase of school shootings, which got a bit of attention. The amazing Teri from Sheikah Plate asked me what she could do as a mother and as a gamer, which opened the door for more discussion. Here at AmbiGaming, we believe that knowledge is power, and being informed on a topic is the only way to make a decision on a question in a way that makes the most sense for you.

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I work with children in my IRL job. Particularly children with various developmental disabilities. And time and again, I am asked about screen time. The use of iPads, smartphones, and other electronic devices are not blamed for disabilities, but are used either as a pacifier so the parent can take a break, or are cautiously approached as if an animal that could go from snuggly puppy to ferocious lion at a moment’s notice.

“Screen time” is most certainly a buzzword, and it has become somewhat common knowledge that children under the age of two should not spend time watching television or playing with devices that have similar electronic screens. People say it’s bad for brain development, it’s bad for eye development, and usually add some anecdote of their own or conclude with a dismissive wave of their hand and move on, depending on what side of the issue they are on.

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Like so much else we discuss here, screen time is both benign and harmful, depending on how its wielded. The research even reflects this beautifully.

Burning the Midnight Oil

We’ve all been there, I’m sure: we’re at a really good part of a game or movie, or we’ve wound up on the weird side of YouTube, and suddenly we look up and it’s 2:00am and we have to be up for work in four hours. Upon waking up, we grumble, yawn, rub sleep from our eyes, maybe drink a little coffee, and vow to go to bed a little earlier that night.


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I don’t think I need a research study to tell you that electronic devices are very alluring for us. They can easy tap into our brain’s reward system and give our brains the immediate and constant good feedback it wants, and those small dopamine hits feel good, man. So maybe we stay up a little later than we should. Just one more level…

Screen time has a similar effect on children, disrupting sleep time, both quality and quantity. It is unclear currently whether this is because viewing screens with their blue lights inherently disrupts sleep, or if it is because technology is very distracting, but the use of electronic devices has an adverse effect on children’s sleep.

Where things begin to get hairy is when this sleep deprivation becomes more consistent: when televisions are in bedroom, children have access to their own phones or video game devices, etc. Not getting enough sleep can harm the brain’s development, causing problems with emotion regulation, social interaction skills, and attention. Needless to say, being unable to regulate emotions, interact with people, or attend for long periods of time can have a myriad of bad consequences, from succeeding in school and at work, to establishing relationships – both professional and personal – with other people.

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This is brain development, people. That means it’s permanent. Where you or I not getting a good night sleep results in worsening attention, we can recover after a good long nap. But once a brain develops in a certain way, is difficult-getting-on-impossible to fundamentally change it. Those are issues that a child will have into their adult life.

So what can be done?

Well, like anything else in a hypothetical child’s life, the behavior of the adults can have a lasting and profound impact. So, for instance, if you or your partner limit screen time, research shows that your children with reduce screen time as well. This is partly to do with the child(ren) following an example set by an adult, and partly to do with the adult and children engaging in other activities together. For older children, limiting or reducing screen time, particularly around bedtime, may also minimize any potential harmful effects of losing sleep due to technology.

Being One With the Couch

As one might imagine, spending a lot of time staring at a screen can also mean a lot of time that being sedentary. There is, unsurprisingly, a correlation between screen time and obesity, which higher screen times making it more likely for the person to be overweight and to have low levels of physical activity. Of course, with low physical activity and being overweight comes health problems with one’s heart, and it’s possible that physical activity is also linked to mental health. Interestingly, not sleeping well is also correlated with obesity, possibly due to having low energy and a lowered metabolic rate.

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Like above, parents play a crucial role in setting good role models for their children. Not only can parents demonstrate how to balance screen time with physical activity, but they can also run interference as needed, limiting time their children spend in front of a screen and encouraging them to play outside (or even – gasp – going outside with them).

Rewiring Your Brain

This is the big one.The reason it has become common knowledge that people under two years old shouldn’t have any screen time is because exposure to the programs on electronic devices – either television shows or apps – can have an adverse effect on brain development. Research indicates that extended screen time, especially when it’s a young brain being exposed to it, can shorten attention spans (permanently), increasing the amount of stimulation the brain needs to function (permanently), and, basically, promotes the manifestation of attention-deficit disorder-like symptoms.

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This is not a symptom of ADD

Some experts disagree that these are harmful side-effects, saying that brains that can handle copious amounts of information without getting overwhelmed are necessary to exist in this world. But I disagree, respectfully. ADD, for instance, isn’t a disorder of “needing a greater amount of stimulation to function.” And having more stimulation doesn’t decrease behaviors associated with ADD.

But I can bemoan this idea and debate it until I am blue in the face, but the fact remains that our brains already have been changed by technology, and will continue to change as we incorporate more technology into our lives. And there is nothing wrong with adapting to the environment, even if that environment includes integrated technology. But, like any environmental factor, how do we ensure that it does the least amount of harm and also give us the most benefit?

Healthy Screens, Healthy Minds

As we talked about before, screen time isn’t inherently bad. Moderation, as so often comes up, is key. And parents are in a unique position to modify behaviors and guide the development of their children. It’s okay to say “no” if you have a good reason for it.

But what about using the screen time most effectively? Well, research suggests that if a child is younger than 18 months old, there should be no screen time, with the exception of video calls to actual other human beings who will interact with the child. Between ages 2 and 5 years old, educational programming like Sesame Street and other evidenced-based programming is alright, with the caveat that the parent should be present.

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This is in order for the adult to offer perspective on what the child is viewing, and help the child apply what they are learning to the real world. But evidence-based programming exposes children to ideas and information that other programs/apps might not, and the addition of an engaged adult offers the social and developmental support to make sure that the experience is as beneficial as possible.

All this can be boiled down to one thing: Screens are not babysitters, and have the most benefit when taken in moderation and when accompanied by an adult to guide the process.

What do you think? Did you have screen time rules as a child? Do you have them for your own children? Are shortening attention spans a bad thing? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!

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  1. It all comes down to poor parenting. These things aren’t bad if children are actually supervised around them, you know? I was a huge gamer as a kid. But I remember my parents throwing me outside to go play with the dog whenever they felt I was playing video games for too long, haha. My attention span is just fine… *runs after shiny object*

    On the other hand, technology is becoming a huge part of society. Kids need to learn how to use it and will be using it frequently as adults. It’s definitely a hard balance! Overall, I think parents shouldn’t use screens as babysitters and try to show their kids the non-technological side of life as often as possible.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting read, me & my brother didn’t have any screen time rules as a kid but we were encouraged to do other things and we were growing in the 90’s to early 2000’s so we didn’t have access to all the things that kids of today have like smartphones or a have anything like a TV in the bedroom for years also we could only play games or watch TV for so long till Dad wanted control of the TV haha, it is different situation but I’d agree I think moderation on any activity is always the way to go.


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