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Less Screentime Means More Creativity

The effect of screens versus reality and traditional media

The next time you think about passing your child a smartphone or a tablet to keep them entertained, you might want to think twice. Maybe you already think twice, but you’re not sure why. We don’t see any harm in doing so, because technology has become such an integral part of our daily lives. We live in the information age, and we access information through screens. Everything in our life is digital. But that doesn’t mean we have to expose our children to the same compulsion especially when we can avoid it. This article sheds light on how excessive screentime reduces and inhibits creativity, imbalances sleep cycles, and triggers ADHD symptoms.

But everything isn’t so gloomy, with the right information, we can opt to gain an advantage rather than suffer from the collateral of this digital age. As Dr. Michael Rich, professor of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard, asserts “We have to be flexible enough to evolve with the technology but choose how to use it right. Fire was a great discovery to cook our food, but we had to learn it could hurt and kill as well,” This article sheds light on how we can extract the best out of technology for our kids.

How videos and games fail to stimulate creativity

Sure, a picture speaks a thousand words, at a rate of 36 frames, that picture becomes a moving video. Our access to information when we see a video versus when we read a book has contrasting effects on our psyche. Especially for kids who’re in the development age between 3-13 years, they need stimulation that not only feeds them information but helps them process it and, more importantly, triggers their imagination. Recreating what you’re reading, instead of perceiving what’s merely flashing on the screen, triggers a key component of imagination: creativity.

The mind is growing constantly within a mesh of fired-up neurons repeatedly building connections, forming new experiences and memories. According to Dr. Rich, a screen provides an “impoverished” stimulation to the developing brain compared to reality. Children need a diverse menu of online and offline experiences, including the chance to let their minds wander. If idle hands are the devil’s workshop, what about an idle mind? Given the right stimulus of curiosity and creativity children make constructive use of this free time where they let their minds wander and come up with questions like ‘Why is the moon round?”

Cleveland Clinic Children’s Doctor Michael Manos said for many kids, screens become a solution for boredom. He says “Screen time is highly engaging, and children who have not learned to manage their own boredom and rely on screen time to assist them are more prone to show difficulties with managing attention themselves,” He said children need to be able to communicate with the world around them, and if a child is spending hours on end looking at a screen, that child is not interacting with the world. A screen does not interact like a human being, and kids are failing to build important social and cognitive skills during their prime development phase.

“Being able to interact and learn the skills associated with talking to other children, initiating play with other children, and engaging in cooperative play with other children is absolutely essential,” said Dr. Manos.

ADHD and information overload

Another major challenge of screen use is the plethora of information that we get subjected to. The main concern when it comes to attention appears to be multi-tasking, and Robert Desimone, a neuroscientist who studies attention at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology agrees on the ill effects that “information overload” has on attentional states. A new study out by the University of Alberta has found that by the age of 5, children who spent two hours or more looking at a screen each day were 7.7 times more likely to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as compared to children who spent 30 minutes or less each day on a screen.

The lead researcher of the study who is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton states that “data suggests that between zero and 30 minutes per day is the optimal amount of screen time.” The duration of this longitudinal study was over a period of 5 years and was conducted by gathering information from parents about their children’s screen time during their 3- and 5-year follow-ups. The researchers found that children with reported screen time in excess of two hours a day were more likely to exhibit behavioral problems by the time they turned 5, particularly poorer attention. Conversely, children who spent two hours or more each week participating in a form of structured physical activity were less likely to experience mental health issues.

Below is a summary of the findings from the study conducted by the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity:

Watching television/movies was associated with:

I. A 5.9% increase in rule-breaking behavior (e.g., “lacks guilt”)

II. A 5% increase in social problems (e.g., “unliked”)

III. A 4% increase in aggressive behavior (e.g., “attacks people”)

IV. A 3.7% increase in thought problems (e.g., “acts too young”)

Greater screen-time has been associated with greater problem behaviors among children. There is strong evidence suggesting that longer sleep duration can cause an 8.8–16.6% decrease in problem behaviors.

We live in an age where technology is integral to our everyday life, something that can’t be avoided. But we can choose how much we can let it affect our life. We have control over how we subject our children to this resource. Douglas Gentile, a developmental psychologist, asserts that “Parents are in a more powerful position than they realize. We did a study with more than 1,400 families in two states and found that parents who set limits on the amount and content of children’s media make a significant difference in terms of kids getting more sleep, doing better in school, being more pro-social, being less aggressive, and being at lower risk for obesity. This was pretty surprising because these are very different types of variables and parents had different ways of setting those limits. Yet we still saw a strong effect,” he says. “Simply setting limits on children’s media… has this huge ripple effect across a wide range of positive health indicators, even though parents won’t be able to see the effects instantly.”

How can we reduce the damage of this digital age on our adolescents?

The World Health Organization and the American Association of Pediatrics recommend young children and toddlers be allowed only an hour a day of screen time.

The best way for parents to cut back on screen time, Klaas suggested, is to be active with their children. Giving them more books rather than smartphones & tablets. Completely retracting technology is detrimental as understanding tech is a key aspect to growing. So, controlling what content they get exposed to is the key.

Dr. Manos suggests that parents may watch videos with their children, which will allow them to participate in the activity together, and help parents direct healthy behaviours relating to technology. After all the habit of handing over a tablet to a child stems from a desire to keep them busy with themselves while parents can have a breather. But this in itself is detrimental.

Occasionally supervising shorter screentime sessions, and getting children to choose other activities, away from the screen to pursue independently while limiting screentime to less than a half hour for very young children. This is how parents make a significant difference in a child's mental and physical health for the remainder of their life.


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