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Is a lot of screen time a problem for kids if they are using educational computer programs?

Posted by Peter Barnes on April 11, 2014 at 1:29 PM

Unsure if your child is having too much screen time? Should you ban TV, iPads and other screens on school days? Or ban them completely? Or just limit your child’s time playing computer games?

Maybe it doesn’t matter – isn’t technology just a part of life now?

Yes it is. But think about this:

Neuroscience research

We know from neuroscience research that what we do, see, practice and think will impact our brains. The principle of “brain plasticity” is now widely understood. Brain plasticity means that our brains, including the brains of our children, are shaped by our experiences, both physical and mental.

For example, intensive practice on a musical instrument will create brain pathways that were undeveloped before the practice was started.

Similarly, doing hundreds of repetitions of a brain training exercise to learn the difference between two phonemes (sounds) of the English language will make changes in the learner’s brain. These are actual physical changes that can be seen by brain imaging technology.

This means that lots of screen time can potentially change our children’s brains , for better or for worse.

We don’t know for sure whether these changes are beneficial or not, but there is a lot of research now going into providing us with a clear answer to this question.

Attention, overweight, learning problems, impulsivity, aggression

Here is a very short summary of some of the research findings – which are mostly suggesting that your child’s screen time should be limited:

  • The more time your child spends interacting with a screen, the less physical activity he or she will do. Because physical movement enhances a child’s attention and learning ability, screen time may be detrimental for some children who are predisposed to attention or learning challenges.
  • Exposure to a lot of technology – iPad’s, computer games, TV, etc – has been shown to make some children more impulsive and have trouble self- regulating their emotions. This can manifest in children having tantrums.
  • A USA study of children aged 5 to 9 years concluded that children who have a technology device in their bedrooms are 30% more likely to be overweight than those who don’t.
Other studies have suggested that too much screen time can cause sleep deprivation, aggression and impaired memory.

Screen time vs content

All in all, it does not sound good. But we need to consider both the amount of screen time as well as the content the children are consuming. There is considerable evidence that controlled exposure to well designed educational computer programs can very be beneficial for students. Programs such as Fast ForWord and Cogmed are examples of well designed, time limited educational computer programs for children.

So as a parent, what should you do? Perhaps the Canadian and USA paediatricians’ societies have the best advice about how much time on screens is OK. They recommend these screen time limits:

Under 2 years: No exposure to screens.
3 to 5 years: One hour a day.
6 to 18 years: Two hours a day.

And you should also take care to guide your children to consume educationally appropriate content when they are using their iPads and other screen devices.

Topics: Learning Capacity, Educational Neuroscience

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