Screentime Is a Global Scourge on Children

As the New York Times' Jane Brody reports in this week's "On Well" column, to Chinese doctors, this obsessive focus on virtual warfare and avatar-creation isn't merely a phase to grow out of -- it's a full-fledged clinical disorder.
07/07/2015 10:28 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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In China, kids love their video games. Their love is so intense, in fact, that they’re plopping down at screens for dozens of hours at a stretch, neglecting to carve out time for food, sleep and even bathroom breaks.

As the New York Times’ Jane Brody reports in this week’s “On Well” column, to Chinese doctors, this obsessive focus on virtual warfare and avatar-creation isn’t merely a phase to grow out of — it’s a full-fledged clinical disorder. Those severely afflicted can even check into rehab centers, where treatment includes months of therapy and enforced media teetotaling.

In the U.S., internet addiction isn’t a clinical diagnosis (yet). But, as Brody explains, American kids aren’t exactly consuming media in moderation. According to a 2010 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, eight- to-10-year-olds spend nearly eight hours a day, on average, staring at various screens. For older kids and teens, it’s closer to 12 hours. Which screens? Television still rules, but computers, tablets and smartphones are gaining ground.

Who’s to blame for youngins’ trading in lemonade stands for smartphones? Parents, probably. Brody wrote:

‘“Many parents seem to have few rules about use of media by their children and adolescents,’ the American Academy of Pediatrics stated, and two-thirds of those questioned in the Kaiser study said their parents had no rules about how much time the youngsters spent with media.’”

To salvage “me time” and keep kids occupied, parents are increasingly relying on screens to babysit their precious offspring. And, Brody suggests, they don’t realize that logging screen-time can be detrimental to children, developmentally and socially.

Brody presents lengthy support for her case against kids and screens. Her main points:

  • Kids need to learn to self-soothe when they’re bored or upset. Screens are just distractions.
  • No electronic media before age two, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Human interaction, not staring at screens, enables vital brain development during these pre-toddler years.
  • Kids who watch simulated violence can become immune to it and, research suggests, exhibit more violent behavior and less empathy as a result.
  • Teens who watch violent shows or play violent games have been found to act more aggressively toward peers and teachers. (Note: the relationship between watching violence and being violent has long been a contentious topic. Here’s the 2007 study Brody cites as evidence.)
  • Kids who spend all their time expressing themselves in Emojis aren’t spending that time studying the periodic tables. As a result, they aren’t exactly crushing it in school.
  • Sitting, you may have heard, is the new smoking. The tablet life is a sedentary one, which surely doesn’t help America’s obesity epidemic.
  • Kids play Candy Crush during the morning carpool, whereas those drives used to be a time for cranky kids to yell at their parents. That was healthy, as one doctor explained: “They need time to daydream, deal with anxieties, process their thoughts and share them with parents, who can provide reassurance.”
  • Virtual reality isn’t reality. Kids who don’t understand real-life social interactions have trouble developing social and emotional intelligence.
  • Juggling devices may help children multitask, but it won’t help them learn to choose and focus on a single, important task, a skill critical to deep thought and problem-solving.

The New York Times has made a cottage industry of hectoring parents and making them feel inferior. (Actually, it’s not just parents — who can read the Real Estate section without wanting to slit their wrists?) But this is one case where we’re inclined to take the paper’s side: Most parents aren’t doing enough to de-screen their kids.

Next week’s “On Well” column will also address kids’ electronic media use.

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