Kids, Screen Time and Their Brains … What One Pediatrician Learned

“It’s not how long we’re using screens that really matters; it’s how we’re using them and what’s happening in our brains in response.”

That’s the conclusion Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Child’s Hospital, recently came to.

“The growing human brain is constantly building neural connections while pruning away less-used ones, and digital media use plays an active role in that process, according to Rich,” writes Debra Bradley Ruder. “Much of what happens on screen provides ‘impoverished’ stimulation of the developing brain compared to reality, he says. Children need a diverse menu of online and offline experiences, including the chance to let their minds wander.”

It’s in this wandering, this space that some might call boredom, that children’s imaginations and creativity are most actively engaged. Dr. Rich points to research by his colleagues at Harvard Medical School that shows how damaging screen time can be to healthy brain development. Not only does the constant engagement limit creative thought; it also has a negative impact on healthy sleep.

“So even if they stay awake in algebra class,” Dr. Rich says, “they may not remember what happened in class yesterday.”

Importantly, young people have not yet developed the capacity to limit their own obsessive behaviors. So they may not be aware of how much time they spend on their screens and they lack the ability to wean themselves away. Dr. Rich offers some great tips for helping your own family become healthier consumers of digital media:

  • Beware of digital media distraction. Half of all kids and three-quarters of parents feel the other is distracted when talking to each other.
  • Have regular sit-downs, screen-free meals with your children.
  • Put down your device. Be present with others. Observe the world around you. Let your mind wander.
  • Avoid blue light-emitting screen use before bedtime.
  • Play online games with your children rather than forbidding them. Learn how to play from them and, as you play, help them think about what they’re seeing and doing on screen.
  • Help your children plan how to spend their time, focusing on important and favorite activities to avoid sliding into the screen abyss.

Those are great ideas for kids, and I know a lot of adults who would benefit from following these guidelines also.

The online distractions will still be there waiting for you, but this moment in time is irreplaceable.