Kids, Screens and Play

Driving home with our year-old grandson from New York’s Catskill Mountains last weekend, my wife and I recalled previous summer car rides, singing songs with our kids when they were young. We liked to sing Motown, the Beatles, and a country classic our daughter later recalled as “the hobo song” (“King of the Road”). In the light of recent changes in technology and family life, these songfests now seem quaint, as moribund as the Catskills themselves. Families no longer sing songs on long summer drives; instead, kids are playing games on their tablets or phones, texting friends or checking Instagram.

Is my nostalgia naïve and out-of-touch? Perhaps. On this issue, however, I am solidly in the scientific mainstream, with abundant evidence (and even a contemporary comedian) on my side.

The data on kids and screens, to any objective observer, is alarming. Reading the results of the 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study, it is reasonable to conclude that many 11 – 14 year olds are continuously on screens when they are not at school or involved some structured extra-curricular activity. The problem has certainly not gotten better since the Kaiser survey was taken; kids are now sending texts after they are in bed.

The risks of excessive screen time on children’s development have been widely discussed, especially its addictive potential. (A social media expert recently quipped, “Every time someone likes my Facebook post, I get a hit of dopamine.”)

Comedian Louis C. K., in a brilliant interview with Conan O’Brien, called attention to two especially pernicious effects of the excessive use of cell phones by kids. Louis notes that texting allows a suspension or attenuation of the empathy that is normally present in social interactions and, when used by kids as an escape from painful feelings, undermines their ability to tolerate moments of sadness and loneliness, essential for a healthy emotional life.

Louis is right. In my clinical experience, communication through social media seems to heighten a child’s expectation of an immediate response and sense of urgency in regard to his or her feelings and needs. Urgency, however, is an enemy of emotional maturity. Children need to learn, slowly over the course of childhood and adolescence, that what they want or need they do not always need “now.”

One of the most harmful consequences of the amount of time kids now spend on screens is a decrease in interactive play in children’s lives.

Interactive play is an essential pathway toward social maturity in young children. In this context, I would like to restate a developmental principle (now slightly revised) I included in my first post for Huff Post Parents two and half years ago:

Interactive play – beginning in infancy and continuing throughout childhood – is to children’s social development what talking with children is to their vocabulary development and what exercise is to their physical development.

Every moment of interactive play with an admired adult is a moment of shared interest and enjoyment, and therefore beneficial in a child’s emotional life. It is also a mini-lesson in coping with frustration and disappointment, in making accommodations and getting along with others, and in learning self-restraint. These social and emotional skills are not learned in front of a screen.

What can we do?

Most experts advise that parents should establish rules and limits with regard to the amount of time kids spend in front of screens. I agree. But it matters how we do this.

  • My first recommendation may seem counter-intuitive: Parents should take a genuine, enthusiastic interest in what kids are doing on their screens, especially the games they are playing. Our interest is not in the service of monitoring the content of their games, but in learning about them, especially why they like them, just as we should with any expression of a child’s interest. I also recommend that parents play electronic games with their children. Watch your child play and ask him to teach you the game. Most children, even early adolescents, want their parents to watch them play these games, so they can show off their skill.

Our genuine interest in their electronic games does not encourage kids to play these games more often. Instead, it invites more conversation (and therefore, eventually, more effective limit setting). Children are also more willing, at a later time, to engage with us in interactive, non-electronic play.

  • Before we set limits, ask kids for their ideas.

As with almost all family problems, we will be more successful in solving the problem of screen time when we engage kids in the search for solutions. Most children recognize the need for some reasonable limits on their access to screens and are willing to engage in a discussion of what limits would work best for them. When we incorporate some of their suggestions into a family plan, they now have part ownership in the plan; they are therefore more likely to cooperate and less likely to be secretive and defiant.

  • Create screen – free hours for the entire family.

This recommendation is an extension of advice I routinely offer families with regard to homework – to create a library hour in the home, in which all electronics are turned off for the entire family.

Many experts on Internet addiction recommend placing limits on the number of hours kids spend in front of screens. For young children, this is right approach, following guidelines offered by the American Academy of Pediatrics. For older children, however, these limits are often difficult to monitor and enforce (and impossible to enforce when children are at a friend’s house). The unintended result is more frequent argument and negotiation, the last thing that most families need.

Establishing non-screen hours usually works better. During these hours, parents should substitute play time for screen time. Play card games and board games, do puzzles and drawing, building and wrestling. Most children, despite some perfunctory protest, still prefer interactive play with a parent to watching television or playing video games, with all the benefits for their social and emotional development that ensue.

In this way, we begin to instill important life lessons. We have established a principle of self-discipline. Kids learn that they can have all the benefits of screens – entertainment, ready access to information and social sharing – with less urgent need for immediate gratification, a crucial nutrient for their future emotional health.

This post was originally published on the Huffington Post, July 2015.