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Do Children Really Spend Too Much Time in Front of Screens?

Do Children Really Spend Too Much Time in Front of Screens?Once again the experts in child development and child health are warning parents about exposing their children to TV and videos before the age of two. This adds to the list of warnings about too much TV/video exposure during later preschool years or too much time playing video games or too much time on the internet. The concerns are that it will stunt brain development and/or social skills and that it contributes to a passive learning mode that reduces creativity and effective problem solving.

This latter issue really stirs my juices. I have complained for decades that public education is a passive process and fails to stimulate creativity and teach the kind of problem solving and teamwork that the real world requires for success. I wish the American Academy of Pediatrics would produce a statement that public education is bad for our children’s health!

Sorry to digress but it’s hard for me to ignore the narrow vision of those who are trying to advise parents especially when they rely on limited research data and a myopic perspective of what the relationship is between childhood experience and adult success in work and family life. An example of the latter would be a follow-up to my last column about the effects of too much day care. The increased social aggressiveness found in 6th graders who had spent more time in day care might be a mild concern in the 6th grade (those children, as I pointed out, were not identified as behavioral problems), but we have no idea if that increased aggressiveness proves to be a valuable asset in their adult lives when such behavior may actually prove helpful.

That’s one of the pitfalls of experts giving rather simplistic advice when the actual long term outcomes are very complex. Suppose it turns out that, by adulthood, those same “more aggressive” 6th graders are more successful in their personal and work lives. Will the headline then read, “Preschoolers who spend limited time in day care grow up to be too passive”?

In my opinion, the main problem with all these dire warnings is that it is stimulated by research that is very limited in focus and which uses a backward view of the lives of our children. What I mean by this last point, and the key theme of this article, is that it places those lives in the context of what our world has been rather than what it is going to be.

The pace of change in our global society is increasing at a geometric rate. Faster and faster, technology spurs an ever more rapid impact on our lives. I cannot count the number of times that my friends and I have commented on how much cell phones have changed our lives. Yet, just look at this one device. Every few months it morphs into something new and more dynamic. Now one can not only take pictures and videos with a cell phone, one can download TV shows, access the internet, and listen to your favorite music. Activities that were once the province of large, stationary desk top computers can now be duplicated on a small, hand held “phone.”

This is but one example, albeit a very visible example, of how our lives are impacted by technological change. But cell phones represent only a tiny fraction of what is happening.

I think about the ways in which my life has changed in the first year of my retirement. (Keep in mind I am a very limited technophile.) I have been tutored in using Adobe Photoshop and have learned to edit digital images in ways that boggle my mind. Now I’m scanning slides accumulated over a period of 40 years, editing and organizing them. Soon I will be able to send those images to my TV screen! I already can share my pictures using online websites such as Kodakgallery. Or, I can share pictures using a free IM-type program called Skype, which allows me to talk to my grandson on the other side of the world, send pictures, or just type messages back and forth. Then there is Vonage, which allows my son who lives overseas to call me on a local number as if he lived around the corner!

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Meanwhile, using Linksys, Sling Box, and our digital cable box, my son is able to watch and record shows as if he was living in our guest bedroom. Naturally we are also making extensive use of our cable company’s DVR system to record shows and watch them on our schedule. Meanwhile, my wife and I entered the iPod age, downloading our hundreds of CDs (over 9000 songs), organizing them into an extensive group of playlists, and listening to music more than ever. And I don’t even have a blog!

Children Today Are Being Raised in a Digital Environment

My point in sharing all this, again, is how much our lives are changing so rapidly in so many ways, all due to technology. And I haven’t even touched on the amazing advances in medicine! Or how about a printing company that I just read about, developed and run by two young men, which has reduced the cost of printing by 90% for a host of tasks! Amazing. Now I would love to ask how much time these guys spent playing video games as teens or were creating videos on or Oh, that’s right. Probably didn’t have these latter activities when they were teens! Well, I’m sure you get my point.

I believe that from infancy on, allowing our children to watch stimulating videos or playing interactive video games or learning to create their own blogs is actually preparing them for a world that we can barely imagine, yet it will be their world by the time they are adults. I believe that their world will be less language based, less face-to-face based but, instead, much more of a visual-analytical world, one that is more hands on and filled with opportunity for incredibly creative adventures and discoveries.

At the same time, I am not afraid that our children will become socially backward and relationship deprived. I believe the desire for social connection is an integral part of the biochemical make-up of the human species. Look at how much of the internet-based activity is focused on connecting to others, sharing information, developing one’s identity through creative expression. While children are not outside playing as much as they did in past generations, that change is not about TV and computers as much as it is about the disconnected lives of families and the greater concerns about the safety of our children. Still, children have their best friends and their groups and children continue to be very concerned, at all ages, about not belonging or fitting in. So all the old social dynamics are still there.

What is fascinating, at the same time, is that this generation of children are forming connections with peers literally on the other side of the world. They may know more about a child in South East Asia than a child next door. Long term, this can become a critical factor in improving the understanding of those who are different from them and contribute to the whole shrinking world phenomenon. Keep in mind that the global economy is booming, that emerging countries are truly emerging and the gap between the U.S. and much of the rest of the world is diminishing. This is resulting in a steady shift in the nature of our economy and what job skills will be needed going forward.

We are already seeing shifts in marital and parenting data. Fewer percentage of marriages, increase in percentage of married couples who choose not to have children, and a steady decrease in the divorce rate. People are exercising more choice and, with the steady rise in interfaith and interracial marriages, we are constantly becoming a more blended society.

I include these observations in an article about the effects of TV and video viewing on our children’s development because it provides further evidence of how much the world is changing and how difficult it is to predict what is good or bad for our children or what the world will look like when they are adults.

It is my belief that those who are making negative judgments about too much exposure to video, TV, and computer screens are basing those conclusions on a 20th century model of a more language-based, face-to-face society with more rigid life roles and a world of more separated societies.

I think it is necessary to use a very different yardstick to attempt to measure what is good and bad for our children and that requires trying to project, based on the rapid changes in our current world, what the world will look like and demand from them when they re adults. While this is a daunting task, and requires a lot of speculation, I believe it is better to use this more creative model than an outdated one. Meanwhile, for parents, as always, I recommend emphasizing building intimate relationships with your children and relying on your instincts about what is best for each child and your family.

Do Children Really Spend Too Much Time in Front of Screens?

Kalman Heller, PhD

Dr. Kalman Heller is a retired psychologist who ran a successful private practice. He previously wrote a monthly column for a local newspaper, and later took his "ParenTalk" column online. This article is reprinted from his online column with his permission.

APA Reference
Heller, K. (2018). Do Children Really Spend Too Much Time in Front of Screens?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.