Is too much screen time stunting kids’ development?

    According to Nielsen research, iPads top the holiday wish lists of many children. Retailers report that electronic games continue to be among the 10 most desired toys for both boys and girls.

    Pediatricians say that American children spend about four hours a day staring at screens. We have heard a lot about a connection between too much screen time and obesity, but many experts say all that staring also hurts development.

    Parents might marvel at their toddler’s ability to operate smartphones and computers–and there are thousands of YouTube videos to prove it.

    But what are the kids not learning while happily clicking away on the touch screen?

    Nancy Allard, an occupational therapist who heads the Luma Center for Children at Valley Forge Educational Services, is concerned about the flat nature of kids’ play these days.

    “We really live in a three-dimensional world and while the screen time is great, and some of the apps are great and some of the educational programs are amazing, we still have to navigate through a three-dimensional world, so we are missing a lot of that,” said Allard.

    Behavioral changes, shorter attention spans

    She has worked with kids for decades, and says she and her colleagues are seeing changes in behavior and attention span.

    “Children are having a hard time sitting still, attending, they are fidgety, they are moving more in their seats, and yet when they go out on the playground, their play is not really big movement, it’s really sedentary,” she said.

    During “screen time,” said Allard, kids are typically inundated with fast-moving information that keeps coming at them. A teacher, by comparison, might appear boring.

    Many of her colleagues, said Allard, feel like they have to become circus acts to keep their students entertained.

    Plus, said Allard, kids, much like many adults wading through hundreds of emails, are having difficulty prioritizing information, and figuring out what is important.

    Temple University’s Infant Lab is a busy and fun-filled place, kids are playing with dinosaurs, a toddler is stacking blocks with his mother. Psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek co-directs the lab, where she studies how kids learn. She shares Nancy Allard’s concerns about too much screen time. She says the last thing parents want to do in life is create couch potatoes from the age of 6 months, and adds that children learn best in active, engaged, and meaningful environments.

    That means moving around, making things up, playing with other kids. It’s the difference between sitting on the couch playing a video game, or turning the couch into a fort.

    Hirsh-Pasek says learning and development happen when kids are interacting with the world around them.

    “We do know that for fine-motor coordination, you need to pick things up, you need to maneuver them and you need to use your fingers–and you can’t substitute watching for doing,” she said.

    A recent study from the Infant Learning Lab examined how and what kids learn from playing with blocks, and showed that they learn important “spatial skills” from such play–where things are in relation to others, which later influences math skills, or sense of direction.

    Value of playing incalcuable

    We can observe kids learning certain skills as they play, but Allard said the value of playing and interacting goes way beyond what meets the eye–for example, when kids invent ball games.

    “They might spend most of the time arranging the bases and getting things set up and arguing about the rules, but all that planning that takes place and the problem-solving and really the social negotiation those are really life-long skills, and you don’t get that from screen time,” Allard said.

    Hirsh-Pasek said she worries that the lack of this kind of play is leading to what she calls a “creativity crisis.”

    “I promise you, Watson the computer will do better than we do, and Siri is doing a nice job of finding facts for me on my iPhone,” said Hirsh-Pasek. “So I think we need to do more in a world where information is doubling every two and a half years. All of us are going to be obsolete if we don’t become creative problem solvers and thinkers.”

    Neither Hirsh-Pasek nor Allard consider themselves anti-technology. Both say games and TV shows have value for kids, but caution parents to set limits, and to be an active part of their children’s screen time.

    And as parents set out to do some holiday shopping,  Hirsh-Pasek encourages them to steer toward old-fashioned toys. She favors construction toys, art toys, musical toys, things where the children are the creators, and where there is no one right answer.

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