How Dangerous is Screen Time for Kids?

How Dangerous is Screen Time for Kids?

Is Screen Time Dangerous for Kids?

Technology has become a big part of our children’s lives (and ours). Computers, handheld devices, video games, and smartphones are everywhere, and are often used in educational settings. But many parents have concerns about, and spend hours battling with their children over, screen time – and for good reason.

It’s exhausting to continually fight this battle, but stay strong. The dangers are real, and today I want to illustrate just how serious these dangers can be.

Why Fortnight (and Similar Online Games) Are Dangerous

At first, it seems that your child is engaging with others by shouting into their headset. In reality, they are communicating remotely with friends (and, often, strangers) instead of having face-to-face time. As adults, we understand the difference between going to lunch with a friend and texting her – relationships are built on personal interactions, not virtual ones. But kids and teens don’t have that experience.

Before becoming engrossed with Fortnight or other games, our teens may have been happy to have friends over or meet at the pool or even the mall. Now, they may say they don’t need to see their friends because they talk online with them. But you and I know it’s not the same thing.

Having your child stay home and choose not to socialize with others isn’t the only danger, though. Many times kids start out playing an online game with friends, but then a friend will invite a friend who is a stranger to your child (and may not even be that well known to the friend). You have no idea about that other child, their parents, rules, morals, values, or anything you hold dear. For that matter, you can’t even be certain that the stranger is actually a child.

In addition to the safety and lack of face-to-face time with other humans, Fortnight is rated T for Teen, which means it is intended only for ages 13 and up due to violence, sex, mature themes, etc. Many elementary-aged children play this game – I have even heard of a child as young as five on Fortnight – but children younger than 13 do not have the cognitive or maturity level for this type of input.

But Fortnight isn’t the only danger spot. Here are five other examples:

  1. Five Nights at Freddy’s (FNaF). Scary content and difficult content for a young child.
  2. Roblox. Known sexual predators on this game pose as children through chat and comments. Also in this game are mini games that are graphic and violent.
  3. Hello Neighbor. I thought this was Mr. Rogers – NOPE. It is a violent game trying to escape your neighbor’s house while you are attacked.  Nice, huh?
  4. Baldi’s Basics in Education. This game seems like an educational, fun way to learn math, but is actually a horror title set in a school in which the principal hits the kids with a ruler when they make a mistake. No, thanks!
  5. YouTube. There are so many inappropriate videos on YouTube I don’t know where to start, including within YouTube Kids. I recently heard a young patient singing a song from Cinderella full of swear words – he saw it on YouTube Kids.

It’s incredibly important to closely monitor everything your child watches, plays, or downloads. It takes effort and vigilance and a lot of saying “no”, but it will be worth it. Don’t just do it once, check daily, and set passwords and delete certain programs.

The Effects of Too Much Screen Time

Predators, graphic or scary images, exposure to bad language, and isolation are all good reasons to limit what your child sees and does online, but a number of other negative effects have been tied to screen time in children:

  • Irritability
  • Increased arousal level
  • Inability to stay focused on real life tasks
  • Hyperactivity
  • Decreased social skills
  • Increased aggression or violence.

Research points to all of these effects, and I’ve witnessed many of them within our clinic. Here are just a few:

  • A six-year-old pointed a butter knife at his mom, saying he would to kill her, but it was ok because it’s a game and she would just get a new life. He did not have the cognitive understanding to know that in real life once you are killed you are gone.
  • Another six-year-old repeatedly says he wants to die after being exposed to Zombie, Five Nights at Freddy’s, and Coco. He did not understand that once you are gone you are gone forever, you don’t come back as a zombie or that if you get to heaven your parents aren’t right there waiting for you. He had a distorted reality from watching videos and playing games.
  • A seven-year-old says “hit me with the ruler” when he gets in trouble.  His parents do not believe in this type of punishment, so he has never been hit and has no idea how much it would hurt. He played it on a video game and it seemed like an entertaining punishment.
  • A six-year-old began flapping and demonstrating “autistic-like” behaviors. Upon interview, I found out he played WarCraft with this father. It seemed like an innocent way for father and son to bond, but it was too much graphic visual stimuli for this little boy.
  • A nine-year-old began using inappropriate language he saw on YouTube. He had no idea it was inappropriate because of the cartoon format in which it was presented. When his parents discovered it, they deleted YouTube and replaced it with a science app. Now he talks about planets and DNA.

Parenting does not come with a manual; it is trial and error, and even more so if you have a child with challenges. Personally, I cringe remembering some of my parenting fails. If any of the above cases sound like your child, please understand that I am not pointing fingers, but only working to raise awareness. 

Screen Time and Virtual Autism

In recent years, a growing number of children have begun to be diagnosed with what is described as “virtual autism”. These children present with several of the outward markers of autism and have something else in common – large swaths of time using screens. In one study, researchers decided to completely remove screen time to see if it had any effect, and for these children, all of the symptoms resolved – most within just a few months.

Screen-free is the ideal – and if you think you can do it, I say go for it! – but it’s simply not possible for most families. Some practical steps can be taken, however, to minimize the negative effects of screen time on your kids:

  • Try a screen time hiatus. Choose a “detox” week with screen time, or decide that there will be no screen time during the school week.
  • Limit screen time to a short time frame during the day, and stick to it.
  • Closely monitor the content on all devices and remove harmful media.
  • Don’t start screen time at all with young children. Educational DVDs are better than handing a toddler a smartphone or tablet.
  • Seek out quality television for younger children. Shows like Sesame Street and Arthur are still around and focus on positive relationships and education, not violence.
  • Educate your child about what they are watching. TIP: If it’s not easy to explain to your child, your child probably shouldn’t be watching it.
  • Check ratings, but don’t rely on them. Just because a game is rated E for Everyone doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for your child.
  • Delete apps and/or restrict access, and get everyone in the family on board. If you restrict access to something on a device your child is allowed to use but he can go play it on his older sister’s phone you haven’t accomplished the goal.

Even as adults we are all guilty of consuming too much media. Our brain and cognitive level can handle the input and not be influenced by violence or language, but the overstimulation caused by media isn’t great for adults, either. Sleep issues are on the rise, as are ADD and anxiety from too much stimuli.

The Bottom Line on Screen Time

Emphasize face-to-face play, time outdoors, heavy work, socialization, reading, and crafts over screen time.

Victoria Wood, OTR/L

Image Courtesy Pixabay/Title Added

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