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Researchers start uncovering the effects of ‘screen time’ on kids

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WASHINGTON — While smartphones, video games, TV and other “screen media” can benefit children and teens, they carry a wide range of negative impacts, according to a new supplemental issue of the journal Pediatrics.

And experts won’t truly know the full weight of these impacts anytime soon.

During a discussion on Wednesday at the National Press Club, a panel of pediatric media experts, researchers and policymakers agreed that the issue warrants more research and possible policy solutions.

One hundred and thirty authors contributed to the Pediatrics supplement, titled “Children, Adolescents and Screens: What We Know and What We Need to Learn.” Its 22 articles cover such topics as cognitive impacts, sleep, privacy, cyberbullying and parenting.

This age of exponentially evolving technology carries not only dazzling promise but also great risk, said Dr. Pam Hurst-Della Pietra, the founder of the nonprofit group Children and Screens.

“Its scope and profound effects carry with it some adult-size consequences that increasingly fall on children themselves — the magnitude of which is just beginning to be appreciated,” she said.

Researchers’ findings include:

  • TV and interactive-screen media distract parents and impair parent-infant interaction.
  • “Heavier media multitaskers” show differences in cognition, psychosocial behavior and brain structure.
  • Language and attention development are negatively associated with screen media exposure before the age of 2.
  • Screen media exposure (and TV in particular) distracts infants and disrupts their behavior.
  • Among youths, digital and social media use is associated with lower life satisfaction, increased anxiety and depression, decreased empathy and disrupted person-to-person interaction.
Ubiquity and utility — coupled with social media appeal

Screen media concerns are similar to those that had surrounded older technologies such as film, radio and television, but “we are in a different age,” said Dr. Ellen Wartella of Northwestern University.

The smartphone, Wartella said, is “everywhere all the time” and used for so many things.

“It’s not just for entertainment,” she said. “It’s for interaction. It’s for communication. It’s for a multiplicity of factors, which makes it even more important that you keep your cellphone on you.”

Another factor: social media business models that encourage activity “as often as possible,” said Dr. Kathryn Montgomery, a communication professor at American University.

As attorneys for screen media giants Facebook, Google and Twitter testified on Capitol Hill about cyber-manipulation during last year’s election, she pointed out the topic’s relevance.

“We see the press, policymakers, hopefully parents and the public beginning to understand the way [such companies] function: the way data are monetized, the way these companies can track and follow everybody, including our children,” Montgomery said.

Parents have a role to play in monitoring and controlling consumption, she said, but “they can’t be expected to carry the entire burden.” Corporate responsibility would help, she said, as would stronger regulation, as in Europe.

Effecting such policy in the U.S., however, is a challenging prospect. “We are up against enormous opposition,” Montgomery said.

Tips for parents

Researchers recommend a few things that parents can do to ensure healthy screen-time consumption:

  • Turn off devices during schoolwork or learning.
  • Discourage their eating while watching TV or movies or while playing video games.
  • Limit their exposure to scary or intense media.
  • Create media-free zones, such as the bedroom or at the dining table.
  • Carefully monitor their exposure to advertising online or on TV.
  • Limit your own use of TV and digital technology around kids.
  • Maintain a dialogue with them about sexting and online porn.


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