American children spend more time sitting in front of electronic screens than any other activity except sleeping, according to Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of developmental psychology at Iowa State University. Here, he runs the Media Research Lab, where he conducts research on media’s impact on children and adults. He recently gave a talk about the impact of screen time at Bergman Academy in Des Moines.
“Kids are growing up in a really different environment than the one you and I grew up in,” Gentile said, noting that the average U.S. household has four televisions and two computers with an internet connection. Gentile’s research has found that children’s media experiences are a major factor in attitudes, values and behavior patterns. Although family and community, such as school, are primary influences, the media affects both. “That’s why it’s hard to notice when you’ve been influenced by the media: we are being affected in multiple directions all at once,” he noted.
Want to raise smart and kind kids? Avoid these five common mistakes:
1. Allowing screen time before age two.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screens—at all—before 24 months. “It seems a little extreme, because sometimes you need a shower,” Gentile said. “So put your kid in a bouncy seat in front of a ‘Barney’ video and take a shower, that’s fine.”
But skip the so-called educational videos. “There is absolutely no scientific evidence showing that these music CDs or videos or video games for babies have any benefit,” Gentile said. “And there is now starting to be evidence that they are harmful. Kids spending more time with them have a higher risk of being diagnosed with attention deficit [disorder] by age seven, for example.”
Once kids are past age two, emphasize educational programs such as “Sesame Street.” One study found kids who watched it as preschoolers were still getting better grades by high school, Gentile noted.
But the best stimulation is reading. “Einstein actually said, ‘If you want your children to be brilliant, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more brilliant, read them more fairy tales,'” Gentile noted. “When you’re sitting there reading with your children, they are exercising their imaginations.”
2. Introducing superheroes before age 7.
“A superhero does violent things for pro-social ends,” Gentile said, but that’s confusing for younger kids. Research shows that if children view media of characters behaving helpfully, they’re more likely to imitate that behavior; if they view characters acting aggressively, they’re more likely to act aggressively towards others. But show young children media of superheroes acting aggressively to defend others, and the kids show even more aggressive behavior than if they’re just watching bad guys.
“This shows a place where parents make a basic mistake,” Gentile said. “We look at these shows with our advanced cognitive powers and go, ‘Oh, it all ties up in the end—the bad guy goes to jail, it’s a good message.’ But this is a complex mixed message for young kids. They don’t have those types of cognitive powers. They understand ‘Batman is good, Batman hits people, therefore hitting people is good.'”
3. Putting a TV in a child’s bedroom.
Photo by Sirtravelalot/Shutterstock.com
Some 40 percent of preschoolers have a TV in their bedrooms and over age 8, it’s two-thirds. “This is what’s known in developmental psychology as a bad idea,” Gentile said.
“If you are spending a lot of time reading, your brain becomes an expert reader. You spend a lot of time watching television, it becomes expert at that too.”
Children who have a TV in their bedrooms participate in fewer activities, games, hobbies and sports and get worse grades than kids who don’t. Meanwhile, the risk of obesity goes up 31 percent, Gentile noted. While the average American child spends 31 hours a week in front of the TV, the numbers are higher when a child has a device in the bedroom, because parents are less able to monitor what kids see and hear, and maintain consistent rules for media use.
4. Thinking violent video games are no big deal.
Game-playing actually shows up in every day behavior. Kids who often play violent video games were more hostile, reported getting into arguments with teachers more frequently, were more likely to be involved in physical fights and performed more poorly in school, according to a study by Gentile and colleagues of 600 eighth and ninth grade students.
The researchers measured for personality traits before conducting the study and found the issue was not that aggressive kids are more likely to play violent video games, but that the games actually influenced behavior.
For example, among the least naturally aggressive kids who did not play video games, only 4 percent had been involved in a physical fight in the previous year. “But you take these same low-hostile kids who they play a lot of violent video games, and it’s almost a ten-fold increase in their risk of getting in a fight,” Gentile explained. In fact, the most gentle kids who played a lot of violent video games were more likely to get in a fight than the most aggressive kids who did not play video games.
“The good news in this study is that kids who said parents always checked the ratings before allowing them to buy or rent games got into fewer fights and got better grades in school,” Gentile said. “Use the rating on the box—it matters.”
5. Tossing out your Xbox because of what you just read in #4.
If your family loves to play video games, that’s okay—just emphasize pro-social games, in which the characters cooperate and care for and about each other, Gentile said. Research conducted in more than a half dozen countries found kids who play pro-social games “gain in empathy, were more likely to be on the honor roll and show more increased helpful and cooperative behaviors,” Gentile said.
For example, one study found playing a pro-social game with a teammate increases empathy not only toward a partner but the opposing team as well, and playing in teams may reduce some of the negative effects of playing violent games.
Bottom line: Minimize screen time in favor of other activities. “The brain becomes what the brain does,” Gentile said. “If you are spending a lot of time reading, your brain becomes an expert reader. You spend a lot of time watching television, it becomes expert at that too.”