Dear Mr. Dad: My 13-year-old son is a complete screen addict. He’s on his phone or a game console or a computer all the time. You’ve written a lot about how to get kids to unplug, and I know that as the parent, I can shut off his phone or remove the devices from the house. But things are complicated because he really does need to use the phone and computer to do his school work. What I really want to know is why he should unplug. People talk about how bad screen time is for kids, but I rarely hear any concrete evidence to support that claim. Is a lot of screen time really all that bad? Where’s the proof?
What great questions. The answer to your first one is Yes, excessive screen time (and by that, I mean recreational use of more than an hour or two a day) is bad. As for the proof, there’s a lot of it. Read on.
• Pediatricians and others who work with children are reporting that babies and toddlers who spend a lot of time on tablets have worse hand-eye coordination and muscle control. Actually picking up a block and stacking it on another one requires fine motor skills and an understanding of balance and gravity. Dragging a block from one side of a screen to the other doesn’t require nearly as much. Kids who spend a lot of time swiping a screen are also not developing the muscle control they’ll need when it comes time to pick up a pencil and write something.
• Boys are getting weaker. Georgy Lynn and Cynthia Johnson, coauthors of Breaking the Trance, told me that when children—especially boys—spend extensive time in dark rooms exerting practically no energy, their body stops producing normal amounts of testosterone. Less testosterone means reduced muscle development. As a result, “a boy with ‘muscle weakness syndrome,’ loses his muscle tone as would someone confined to a hospital bed for a long period.” The lack of testosterone may also interfere with boys’ sexual maturity.
• Excessive recreational screen use causes actual brain damage, some of which may be reversible, some of which is permanent, according to Lynn and Johnson. What kind of damage? Decreased attention span, reduced executive brain function (memory, ability to plan, keeping a lid on impulsive behavior), sleep problems, and an increase in mental health issues (anxiety disorders, depression, and vulnerability to suicidal thinking).
• Chronic recreational screen use also has lifestyle effects. Lynn and Johnson did a study to assess those effects and found that screen dependence may cause or contribute to poor school performance, general apathy or a lack of life goals, less social confidence in face-to-face situations, lack of imagination, and the use of manipulative strategies used by addicts (such as lying and stealing).
• Chronic recreational screen use interferes with children’s identity formation. According to Lynn and Johnson, a person’s identity develops as a result of facing and mastering the frustrations and challenges they encounter in life. But screen use—especially when playing games—deceives kids into thinking they’ve overcome obstacles when they actually haven’t. Defeating the enemy, racking up body counts, and leveling up may be great for the ego, but in the vast majority of cases, success in a game has absolutely nothing to do with success in real life. After all, if you get stuck in a game, you can always go on to YouTube or a gamer forum to learn a hack that’ll get you to the next level. Real life is rarely like that.
Previously published on MrDad.com