Screen time has become a major aspect of most children’s lives, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, studies show preschool children spend 30 to 50% of their waking hours in front of a screen.
“My lab focuses on actual strategies that optimize children’s cognitive, social and emotional development early in life,” said Dmitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute. “Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, screens are a big part of that.”
Dr. Christakis has researched how screens affect children’s brains, including the effect of television shows on infants. What the studies found is that these shows are associated with a delay in language development, and early viewing of television was associated with decreased attention spans later in life.
“Programming designed for infants is extremely rapidly edited,” Dr. Christakis said. “What keeps them looking at the screen is all of these changes. It’s as if you’re constantly putting a different toy in front of your child every few seconds.”
This can overstimulate the developing brain and shorten attention spans because real-life seems boring compared to that high-paced television.
“Screens are addictive,” Dr. Christakis said. “They are designed to be addictive, and they’re addictive for all ages.”
Another impact of screens is what children are not doing. This includes missed opportunities to interact with caregivers and other children, as well as play with physical toys and participate in activities.
Though screens have been a constant lately for many children and families because of the pandemic, it’s a good idea to ensure children are spending time elsewhere too.
“It is important that parents rebalance their children’s lives and that they be sensitive to the fact that they need to get back to normal as best as possible,” Dr. Christakis said. “They need to replace some of that screen time with real human interaction as much as that’s possible.”
Dr. Christakis will be presenting and talking with parents as part of a webinar series on-screen time hosted by Recovery Café, a local nonprofit that serves people struggling with substance use disorder and other mental health challenges. These are free to the public with support from the Snoqualmie Tribe.
Learn more and register for the Cognitive Development webinars for Grades 4-6 and 6-8 on the Recovery Café website.