As a parent, I am well-aware of the temptation of allowing my child to play with electronic devices and watch TV. Curious George and Temple Run are very popular in my house. “Screen time” is a term used to include all the little blinky boxes that a child may look at during her day: TV, computer, iPad, iPhone, and hand-held games such as PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS. They are often highly motivating and highly desired by the child, and highly needed by the parent who has other obligations to fulfill such as completing work, or cooking dinner, while also parenting. However, the medical community is strongly warning parents that they need to limit the use of these devices, especially in children under two. Current estimates are a child spends an average of 8 hours a day looking a screens; a shocking figure when you think of what this means for their developing body, hands, eyes, and mind. Research is also linking screen time to childhood obesity, impaired sleep, behavior problems, and being desensitized to violence.
While there are surely benefits to some of the great educational software and apps currently available, the long-term effects on children are yet to be known. Since touch screens have become highly popular only within the past 8 years, research has yet to show if they are helpful or harmful to a child’s developing hand and visual-motor skills. Take for example, an app where a child must trace a letter. As an OT, I can say that there is a benefit to the child in doing this. They are using a multisensory approach to learning how the letter is made (tactile and visual, with perhaps some auditory feedback, too.) However, the app most likely does not rate the quality of their tracing, does not correct if they started the letter at the bottom instead of top, and should not replace paper-pencil practice of writing.
Unless you are a family who choices to ban these devices all together from your home and lives, it’s safe to say that computers, TV, smartphones, and touch screen games will be a reality and the norm for our children. As research continues to emerge on the impact on children, I am choosing as an OT and a mother to limit my child’s exposure, to know what he is watching or playing when he does, and to foster a love the many other ways to keep him happy (and quiet) while I write my blog or make his favorite dinner.
The Mayo Clinic has a great article about practical ways to limit screen time for your child. (HIGHLIGHT: No TV for kids under two; limit to 1 to 2 hours for older kids.)
Here is an article warning against touch screen use in toddlers. (HIGHLIGHT: Limit touch screen time to 15 minutes for young children).