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  • Shanna Donhauser

The Screen Diet We All Need

I have an unpopular opinion. I'm almost nervous to open this can of worms. But I promise it's firmly rooted in research:

Parents should avoid exposing young children to screens. Period.

But there's this app that is supposed to help them with focus and attention! Or this show teaches social skills! I need time to make dinner and screens keep my child safe and distracted.

I know. I hear you. But I will stand by my (seemingly) controversial opinion.

I don't want to shame anyone, and I am really not here to judge. I personally struggle with screens and reducing my own media consumption. It's really hard. I'm no expert in the neurological effects of screens, but I firmly believe that screens can become addictive. The DSM 5, the latest edition of diagnostic manual for psychology, lists Internet Gaming Addiction as a diagnosis for further study. Video games are extremely stimulating, especially with the advancement of art and digital production. I believe that as we learn more about the impact of screens on the brain, we will learn that even less stimulating content (internet, movies, TV shows, etc.) have addictive qualities for many people.

Already, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends zero screen time for children under 18 months old, except for video chatting.

In the first year of life, children learn in relationships. Children need the engaged presence of a caregiver to provide safety; then they feel comfortable enough to explore. Young children use hands-on activities and leverage their relationships to develop cognitive, language, gross motor, and social/emotional skills. The limited studies that suggest a benefit from screen-based learning for young children include watching the content with a caregiver AND reteaching the lesson. Young children struggle to connect with and understand digital content. Their developmental capacities do not allow for sufficient processing of this highly stimulating information.

Basically, any screen time for very young children at best does nothing, at worst is overstimulating.

At around two years old, studies show that children can begin to learn from digital content, particularly in language development. However, the applications and programs used in these studies are not commercially available. Many parents struggle to find high-quality educational material for young children. Most applications for young children rely on bright, saturated colors, sounds, and moving objects to capture the attention and engagement of the child. However, 'attention and engagement' does not equate learning.

Content to consider for young children include Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, and Daniel Tiger. Be mindful of the content you expose your children to, and be sure to watch it with them to monitor the material.

The AAP recommends no more than one hour of screen time per day for children 2-5 years old.

You might wonder: What if my intention for screens isn't education. I just need a break.

My opinion here may not influence you. And I hesitate to speak so strongly when I know many parents genuinely struggle to find opportunities for themselves. The new generation of parents has fewer social supports who could help provide breaks. You need a break, and I admit, screens effectively babysit children.

But I think we're all facing the consequences of constant screen usage. Try to optimize for the future instead of right now, when you can. See if you can build in better systems of support. And be kind to yourself when you really just need a break.

No one is perfect. Every generation of parents makes mistakes. I believe that too much screen exposure is one mistake many parents make, from my generation and those before me. Before, parents just didn't know. Technology and screen-based content have exploded. We experience a never-ending stream of content. Even as adults we've developed terrible habits around media consumption: turning to our phones the instant we feel bored or uncomfortable, binge-watching hours at a time, and socializing through the internet instead of in person.

The age of the internet shifted everything so quickly. We've needed time to study and adapt.

And now we know more:

No screens before two years old. Reduce screens before five years old.

I know this is hard. I don't minimize the challenge. But the research is too compelling to not try. Do your best, accept imperfection, and keep working on finding a strategy and solution that works for you and your family. Screen-free parenting is a great resource for parents who want to find support and ideas for reducing screens at home.

It doesn't happen overnight. But it can happen, with some thoughtfulness, intention, and habit building. You can do this.

If you're curious about the data, see the following links:

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