Is Viewing the Same as Doing? What Parents Need to Know About How Screen Time is Affecting the Growing Brains of Their Children



The Good

Technology today is such an amazing achievement for mankind. It provides us with an infinite information highway at our fingertips. At the same time, it also provides us with unlimited access to our friends, family, co-workers and anyone else to whom we wish to connect.

The Bad

boy in the glow of the tv set

  • So how can something like a TV, computer, or cell phone be harmful to the development of your children’s cognitive, emotional, social, and overall health and well-being?

  • And if it so bad for them, why aren’t more people talking about it?

  • And what can we do as parents to help our kids become media/technology literate in a world that is generally run by and relies on these types of gadgets every day?

As a parent have you ever been concerned when your kids are inside playing video games or watching TV when they could be outside enjoying the fresh air on a sunny afternoon? Or maybe you’re a parent who doesn’t like when your teenager is texting friends under the table at dinner time.

Well, parents, your gut reactions are right on! The over-use of screen devices like TV, video games, cell phones, computers, and iPad’s are being found by researchers to have significant effects on the developing brains of children.


The Brain

The brain is a very complex structure. Not fully functional at birth, it is designed to grow and mature over years in many different ways. This development occurs mainly through a person’s direct interactions with the world.

Seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling are the primary ways we experience our world, so if we are not using these five senses, then we are not learning to the best of our brains’ abilities.

one rose

Picture this… you are in a classroom and the teacher shows a picture of a rose and asks the class to come up with as many descriptive words as they can to describe a rose. If you have had previous interactions with a rose, you know that its smell is heavenly, but that there are also thorns on its stem that can hurt you.

Looking at the picture, you may even recall the first time someone gave you a rose, or you heard the sound of bees buzzing around the flower. Whatever it may be that you recall from the visual representation of a rose, it is your first-hand experiences that have taught your brain everything you know about roses; their smell, feel, look, and maybe even taste.

Without your multi-sensory experience with roses previous to seeing the picture of the rose, your brain would not know anything more about a rose except for what you are seeing projected in front of you. Our brain counts on us to provide it with sensory interactions so that we can create the fertile environment in which it can reach its potential. Our brains are like a rose: if we provide it with what it needs, it will grow.

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Impact of Overuse of Screen Technology

An updated policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “Media Education,” published in the November 2010 print issue of Pediatrics, reflected the dramatic changes in the media scene over the past 10 years.

  • In the 1999 issue, statistics showed children and adolescents were spending more than 3 hours a day on average viewing television.

  • Today, with the pervasive nature of media in multiple formats, the definition of media use has been expanded, and kids are now spending more than 7 hours per day on average using televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices for entertainment.

The increasing availability of media, including access to inappropriate content that is not easily supervised, creates an urgent need for parents to understand the various ways that media use affects children and teens. According to The American Academy of Pediatrics, the overuse of screen technology is defined as “the use of screen devices two-plus hours a day for children over the age of two.”

The AAP also strongly recommends no television viewing or screen exposure for children younger than two years of age. When children at any age are fed a diet mainly of virtual world interactions, they are found to:

  • be at risk of developing learning disabilities,
  • have a much harder time dealing with their emotions and feelings,
  • exhibit problem behavior at home and in school.

Overuse also plays a big role in the quality of children’s health and well-being.

Impact on Thinking and Learning

Did you know that you use more brain power when you are asleep than when you are watching TV or a movie?

Brains are “meaning-making machines” that learn through direct interactions with the world. Therefore, it is up to us parents to feed our child’s brain with the experiences that will help it to grow optimally. Just like when we eat too much unhealthy food and our bodies end up feeling bad, our brain is the same way and counts on us to provide it with healthy fuel.

If a child’s growing brain is being fed more than two hours of screen time a day, his brain cannot develop properly.

This can result in:

  • a decreased attention span,
  • underdeveloped or delayed language abilities,
  • critical thinking abilities or creativity skills,
  • and decreased intrinsic motivation for learning.


Impact on Feelings and Behavior

Just like the brain needs to be fed appropriate, sensory experiences to learn things, our social/interpersonal interactions help us learn how to communicate with other people. The best way to do that is by having relationships with other people so that we can practice and grow in our understanding of our own feelings and others’ feelings.

When children and teens are on technology for more than 2 hours a day, researchers have found that they may develop a stimulus addiction and have increased:

  • hyperactivity,
  • aggression,
  • fear,
  • insensitivity,
  • appetite for violence.


Impact on Health and Well-Being

Although a few major studies such as the Kaiser Foundation survey found no correlation between screen time and lack of physical activity, there is a growing concern among professionals.

They see a relationship between screen time and childhood obesity because children are sitting for long periods of time while watching television, playing video games, and using computers. Such seated activities have been shown to be significant factors in increased blood pressure.

Thomas Robison, a professor at Stanford University, has conducted a series of studies showing that too much TV, video, and computer time contributes not only to obesity, but also to aggression.

Apart from the content viewed, the process of being sedentary does not allow for the physical release necessary to dissipate anxieties and frustrations, resulting in anger and aggressive behaviors.


Research Findings

Yale University School of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, and California Pacific Medical Center conducted a review of 173 studies completed since 1980. This research examined how media influences obesity, tobacco, drug and alcohol use, sexual behavior, low academic achievement and ADHD.

In 75% of these studies, the research indicated that the more time a child spends with screens and media, the more likely he is to be impacted with negative health outcomes.

They also determined that on average, today’s child spends 45 hours a week with television, movies, magazines, music, the Internet, cell phones, and video games. By comparison, children spend 17 hours a week with their parents and 30 hours a week in school.

“Our kids are sponges, and we really need to remember they learn from their environments,” said Cary P. Gross, a professor at Yale. He also added that researchers found it remarkable how much content mattered. It was not only the sheer number of hours of screen time. Children “pick up character traits and behaviors from those they watch and hear.”

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Media Literacy and the Developing Brain

Media Literacy is the ability to use all forms of media well. A media-literate person:

  • uses television, movies, DVD’s, computer and video games for a specific purpose, just as a print-literate person reads books or magazines, a college textbook or a newspaper for various, but specific reasons. Using visual screen technologies intentionally is the first and most important element in helping your child to become media literate.

  • self-monitors his screen time and regulates his use into doses, rather than making a habit of using it for four to five hours at a time. Media-literate children know that technology is only one small part of their world. They are able to separate themselves from the screens in order to explore new things and take part in other activities they are interested in doing.

  • knows the differences between various presentation forms of media. Just as print-literate people can tell a fairy tale from a biography, a media-literate person knows how different techniques are used to convey messages.

    For instance, media-literate people know the difference between sitcoms and documentaries. Furthermore, they are fully aware that the purpose of a commercial is to hook specific audiences to whatever the advertisement conveys.


Raising a Media-Literate Child in a Media-Generated World

As parents, we ultimately want our children to be in control of their screens and not have their screens controlling them. So what can we do to help our children become media-literate people?

Just like the print-literate person practices reading words to interpret the message being articulated by an author, a media-literate person needs practice reading images and interpreting the subtle messages and overt claims visual formats convey.

Practicing with our kids the use of analysis, evaluation, and higher level thinking skills while viewing are ways we can start teaching our children how to critique visual messages and understand their intent and intellectual and emotional impact.

We can communicate facts, ideas, and thoughtful opinions about media images to help them better understand production techniques such as camera angles, lighting, cuts, etc. In this way, your child can make conscious, intentional, purposeful, and wise decisions when using any form of screen technology.

Media Literacy Activities for the Whole Family

In a world that is fast paced and media/technology-generated, it seems like it would be hard for parents to have the time to practice media literacy skills with their children, but the truth is raising a media-literate person is easier and simpler than we may think.

Listed below are some fun activities parents can adapt and use in their own homes with their children or teens. Parents who incorporate media literacy activities that fit best with their own family dynamic have seen their children become more equipped to think critically about visual images at any age and stage of their lives.

Activity #1: TV/ Movie Book discussions.

Parents can keep track of the dates when a TV or movie version of a book is scheduled to air and encourage their kids to read the book first. Great discussions can result from comparing the original book to the TV/movie version.

Activity #2: Use the TV to expand your children’s interests.

Parents can link TV programs with their child’s interests, activities, and hobbies. A child interested in crafts can watch craft programs for encouragement and ideas; after viewing a wildlife show, take the kids to the zoo and have them recall what they learned about the animals from the TV program. How does the real life experience differ from the show they watched?

Activity #3: Different Viewpoints.

This activity incorporates the whole family. The family watches one program together. The TV is then turned off and each person writes a few sentences explaining their opinions about the show. Discuss and compare everyone’s thoughts, and point out to your child how different people will like or dislike the same program. Why are all perspectives valid? Who had the most persuasive view about the show and why?

Activity #4: The Guessing Game.

This activity starts by turning the volume off but leaving the TV picture on. See if your child can guess what is happening. To expand this into a family game, have everyone pick a TV character and add his/her version of that character’s words.

Activity #5: Ask: “What will happen next?”

This is a simple yet effective activity. Mute the commercials while your family watches a TV show together and ask each child and adult what he/she thinks will happen next. There are no right or wrong answers! This gives everyone a chance to engage in creative interplay and then to test his/her “hypothesis” when the show resumes. Children may learn just how predictable and mundane a lot of programs are and soon improve on the scripts by adding their own creative ideas.

Activity #6: Talk about Real Life Consequences.

Start a discussion about what would happen if screen violence were actually occurring in real life, what might the consequences to the perpetrator and the victim of the violence be. Compare what’s on the screen to the consequences of what happens when someone hurts another person in the real world.

Parents Matter the Most

With all the research and information that is being provided to parents, it is stressful, confusing, and hard to figure out what the most effective ways are to parent children in today’s crazy busy media/technology-generated world.

The best advice is to listen to your parental intuition. You are the experts on your children and you know what values you want to instill in them.

Trust your intuition rather what the media says you should do and choose to parent in a way that best supports your child’s growth to become a fully developed, self-actualized, productive citizen of the world.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics; Policy Statement—Media Education, Council on Communications and Media Pediatrics, Offical Journal of The American Academy of Pediatrics

Pediatrics Volume 126, Number 5, November 2010

The Brain Compatible Parenting System© Gloria DaGaetano, 2011,,


By Pam Lathbury
PCI™ certified Parent Coach
(610) 357-7337


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