When my daughter was six, she used to wake up screaming a half an hour after going to bed.  These horrific night terrors lasted for at least 10 excruciating minutes during  which time she was wild-eyed and flailing like the world was coming to an end.  There was no waking her up during these episodes, even by her own mother who she wouldn’t even recognize.  The whole thing was deeply traumatic to witness.  It turned out that these night terrors only happened when she had looked at a screen that day.  The content didn’t matter, it was the lights coming from the physical device itself. When we took away any screen time (nearby iPhone included) the terrors stopped immediately.  We had already gotten rid of our TV when we had kids, however the iPhone and laptop computer were ultimately found to be the causes.

In hindsight, we are thankful that we had an excuse to go to a zero screen time policy in our house.  Before, we had been allowing a video here and there when we were busy or maxed out or just feeling uncreative.  However, the reality was that our two kids would constantly ask for videos even when they couldn’t have them, and so a zero tolerance approach was really the only option for our sanity as well.  It only took about a week for our kids to adjust to no videos, screens or media, and not long after that, they began their own creative play and forgot all about asking for videos.

Many parents take a portioned approach to TV, videos or video games and then filter the content to age-appropriate or “educational” media.  The reality according to addiction experts such as Gabor Mate, is that occasional rewards actually increase addiction, hence children’s propensity to constantly ask for more of this now coveted media time.   We found we had no choice but to ban TV or videos or any screen time altogether.  It turns out that this was the best outcome possible, and it in fact empowered our kids to make up their own play and restimulate their creativity.

“Screen time threatens to erode aspects of childhood that are crucial to social, emotional and cognitive development”, says Temple University psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, author of “Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children REALLY Learn”.

Parents believe that you should simply control the content of what they watch on TV, movies and personal devices, but screen content in younger children can actually be completely irrelevant.  It is all about the screen itself.  What brain research (and our daughter) proves time and time again, is that the pulsing of small electronic lights on a screen actually changes how neuro-transmitters fire in the young brain. These connections haven’t formed fully yet in children under the age of 7 or 8, so this is the vital stage to protect your children.  The prevalance of ADHD (attention deficit disorder), “problem kids” and lack of an ability to focus or self-play creatively are all symptons of this media epidemic.

“At the heart of this issue is how the brain grows.  Unlike other organs, which are at birth just miniature versions of what they will be at adulthood, the  human brain evolves over time.  As it grows, it removes neural connections that don’t get used.  So, if a child is hearing-impaired, the brain actually reroutes cells from circuits that process spoken language and refocuses energy into developing visual circuits.” Paraphrased from Jane Healy, from Vail, Colorado who is a pyschologist and specialist on how children learn and author of  ”Your Child’s Growing Mind” and “Failure to Connect, How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds”. Jane continues, “Fast-paced lifestyles, coupled with heavy media diets of visual immediacy, beget brains misfitted to traditional modes of academic learning. In a recent survey, teachers in both the United States and Europe reported overwhelmingly that today’s students have shorter attention spans, are less able to reason analytically, to express ideas verbally, and to attend to complex problems.”

The question for parents should be not how much screen time you should allow your kids, but how old they should be when you can introduce it  to them at all.  The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests no screen time for children under two, and no child of any age should have a TV in their bedroom.  Brain research and a host of child experts actually suggest no screen time until at least age 7 or 8, at which time the left and right hemispheres of the brain are fully connected.  This “neural plasticity” at a young age means that the habits of the mind may quite literally become structures in the brain.  There also appears to be critical “sensitive” periods in the course of development when certain neuron groups become particularly amenable to stimulation. If sufficient mental exercise is lacking, the related ability may be permanently degraded. Child development experts such as Kim John Payne has shown that media ravaged American children have become as stressed out and disconnected as children raised in war torn Bosnia. The consensus is simply that it is better to put a young child on the floor to play with a couple wooden spoons than to put them in front of a so-called “educational” video.

A study of 1,065 families conducted by Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation showed that two-thirds of children under 6, includes children as young as 6 months old, spend an average of two hours a day in front of the television. If that is not enough, one third of them had a TV in their bedroom, with some having special “kid friendly” remote controls.

Parents need to model appropriate behaviour around the use of screens and talking about mass media.  Smartphones are an epidemic among parents, which some now consider the new “second-hand smoke” and must be put away if you want your children to value time with you.  You owe it to their self-worth, since showing an iPhone more time than a child makes a clear statement about what you, their role model, deems important. Parents must also take time to listen to children, reduce the frenetic scheduling of their lives, read to them, give them some quiet time to play, to ponder, to reflect, and to use the inner voice that mediates attention and problem-solving. Without adult models, children cannot shape their own brains around these intellectual habits which, in the long run, will be far more valuable to all concerned than a frantic march through content.

iParents are not the only ones that need to take responsibility for this age-inappropriate consumption of media.  The technology industry is now more than ever targeting children under the age of 7 with games and technology deemed “educational” and to “increase engagement”.  I know, I am an iPhone and iPad developer myself, and see how all the top apps are clearly and disturbingly targeted at young children.  Many are over-simplified with 2D graphics that just require a tap anywhere on the screen, or a swipe to make “Hello Kitty” styles characters respond.  Characters often have over-sized heads, wide puppy-dog eyes and music that only a young child would relate to.

When submitting a free iphone application, Apple asks specifically how you want to target ads: “My primary target audience is users under 17 years of age. Yes or No?”

Here is a list of 10 things parents need to consider relating to managing screen time with their children;

1. A zero tolerance screen time approach will benefit your child most

I’ve heard many excuses for showing kids videos, and we used to use them as well.  ”I need a half hour for myself to get something done.” or “I watched a ton of TV when I was a kid, and I turned out fine.” Did you though?  Once you bite the bullet and purge screens from your home, you will, and I guarantee it, see your children transform into their true creative selves.  They will come to you less with problems and comments like “I’m bored” and will gradually learn to slow down and find play in the things around them.  You will of course need to guide or stimulate this play initially by setting up the time and environmental to foster activities.   Providing art supplies, non-electronic toys, blocks of wood, string, tape, paper and scissors and kids will come up their own crafts after a little guidance to get them going.

2. Media content is irrelevant, the damage is done by the flashing screen itself

Educational and age-appropriate content really doesn’t matter.  It’s the flashing pixels, similar to a strobe light that is slowly frying your kids brains (hence those warning signs for people susceptible to heart attacks near bright or flashing lights).  The passive active of watching a TV or video actually changes the structure how how young brains develop.  The neural connections made in a 1 or 2 year old brain will be changed forever with a heavy diet of TV or videos, that is a fact.  As a child ages, media exposure will hurt creativity, increase frustration and impatience and literally change the way they interact and play with others.

3. Occasional screen time will actually increase addiction to media

Gabor Mate who is an addiction expert in children has demonstrated that addiction is excacerbated by random rewards. The learning is that it is especially highly detrimental to use screen time as a reward with children.  Rewards are a short-term approach to reinforcing child behaviour.  If a child does not learn to do things for their own benefit and self-gratification, then they will lose the personal value or connection in what they are doing.  As Kim John Payne says, there is an epidemic of parents who are “good-jobbers” with their kids.  Have them not look to you, but to themselves for rewards.

4. Parenting while using electronic devices will send a negative message to your children

Young children learn by imitation and older children learn from your modelled behaviour.  By checking e-mail in front of them or watching media, you are showing them that your device or laptop is more important than them.  You are teaching children essentially that disconnecting from others around them is OK. Leave your phone behind when you go to the playground.  Focus on them and not your phone.

5. Mass media actually changes the nature of play

Children who absorb too much screen time actually play differently.  Their play tends to be more agressive (sometimes even violent), uses adult language and is more frenetic and fast paced.  Often they are simply mimicking what they’ve seen in a movie or video rather than creating their own roles or thoughts themselves.  We have seen this clearly among some friends kids and even cousins, and is one of the reasons we chose a Waldorf school approach given it’s zero tolerance of home screen time for kids who attend.  Other parents have admitted that showing “Star Wars” (possibly the most harmful example of any movie you could expose a young child to) to their children at age 4 or 5 has permanently changed the way they play.  Providing simplistic and low-tech tools and toys and encouraging outdoor play is the best way to allow children to take the lead in creating their own games and stories.

6. Using media in stories or as metaphors around your kids will increase it’s attraction

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a parent say “It was like a movie!” when they saw something happen… or “You know, like in Terminator ….”.  These comparisons may make sense in an adults mind, but to a child who hasn’t seen these movies, these ideas are meaningless.  More importantly, parents are essentially endorsing their positive feelings towards the value of movies or TV shows which makes children aspire to do the same.  I often watch my media-free kids interact with others on the playground who start to act out that they have guns or light-sabres.  I love it when my kids quickly lose interest and go off and play separately.  The media kids get the message and then move on. However, put two media-free kids together, and they will invent the most outrageous games and stories themselves.

7. Children who become easily “bored” or “unfocussed” are likely consuming too much media

In our house, we have made “bored” a bad word.  To foster creativity, you need kids to think for themselves, and give them tools to work with.  Paints, drawing, building supplies are all good.  Even a concept like a zipline for stuffies etc works great. Children who have become habituated towards passive TV watching will develop difficulties in taking the initiative to entertain themselves.  Teachers have been seeing more and more of this in schools, and it is troubling, and often confused simply with “behavioural” issues.

8. Providing kids with a simple environment with tools for play will quickly allow them to replace media

It’s amazing what a few wooden blocks can do to stimulate play.  Less if often more as Simplicity Parenting expert Kim John Payne reinforces.  He encourages parents to clean out the playroom and distill clutter down to a few simple tools or basic toys.  Try giving your kids a cardboard box, some scissors and crayons if appropriate and see what happens.

9. Kids who watch TV or videos will experience sleep issues

We all grow in our sleep, and this time is vital for kids. Media, especially violent imagery, actually stops the brain from entered REM (rapid eye movement) sleep as easily and diminishes the important benefits of sleep for children.  Night terrors, frequent frustration during the day or impatience and meltdowns are a few symptoms of too much media consumption.  Again, it’s not what they are watching, is the physical flashing of millions of small lights that confure the young brain and disrupt cognitive thought during both waking and sleeping hours.

10. Quiet time is essential for kids to allow them to digest learnings from the day

With the TV on in the background, quiet time is not possible, and attentions are scattered. Experts agree that a quiet time of reflection and play is what solidifies learning.  A noisy environment, whirring/beeping plastic toys that distract minds will only confuse young minds.

11. Screen time teaches kids to become passive learners

Children who watch a lot of media will become dependent on external sources for intellectual stimulation.  ”They won’t know how to problem solve or think outside the box.  They will not be leaders of the 21st century”, says Hirsh-Pasek. “A child who learns from the screen is learning by rote.  That learning isn’t deep or meaningful”.  Even when the content of a program is education and age-appropriate, Hirsh-Pasek won’t recommend it for any child under age 3 at least.  ”I can’t say that watching one “Einstein” video has an ill effect on a child,” she says, “but it’s a trade-off. It’s robbing precious time better spent on something else.”

12. TV viewing at a young age actually increases the need to be entertained rather than shrinking it

Early-childhood educator Diane Levin of Wheelock College says that “the more children watch and the younger they are, the less opportunity they have to figure out how to entertain themselves, and the more dependant they are on the screen.” She’s been hearing for years from preschool teachers who say many children don’t know how to engage in pretend play anymore.  Levin is the author of “Remote Control Childhood? Combating the Hazards of Media Culture”.

13. Background TV or noise creates an unfocussed child

When a toddler is playing in front of a TV, even if it is age-appropriate, their attention will be grabbed and dominated by the images and sounds on the screen.  Bouncing back and forth from play to screen not only creates and appetite for constant stimulation, but also diminishes the ability to stay focused on any one thing. Bedrooms, play areas and mealtimes are danger zones for media. These areas should be sacred for meaningful social interactions, and media must not be part of that.

“By first grade, this can translate to difficulty staying on task as well as to a lower threshold for frustration, increased irritability and aggression. You might not see if for years,” says pediatrician Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, “but as children get older, with second hand media exposure they are more jittery and nervous, more irritable and more aggressive. The younger they are when it starts, the greater the accumulation.”

14. Parents watching media are endorsing the kinds of programming they are watching for their kids

When a dad watches a boxing match on TV, and his young son walks into the room – that is saying that boxing is OK to that child.  Even more violent acts being watches are also deemed appropriate if a child sees an adult passively watching this without turning off the TV.

15. Outdoor time is critical to a healthy young mind

The physical health benefits of outdoor play are obvious, but there are also a lot of social and emotional ways children develop when they play outside.  Kids sitting indoors in front of a TV or videos or video games are being robbed of precious learning experiences. For instance, when children find animal tracks, pick up insects, build sand castles, play games with friends, or explore things they find in nature, it encourages logical thinking, and improves their ability to reason. Outdoor play also encourages children to take risks, stretch their imaginations, explore their interests, and discover what they enjoy doing. And when kids spend time outside with others, it gives them the opportunity to build the kind of social skills they need to forge healthy friendships throughout life.