A hot topic in today’s society is the amount of screen time that our children are exposed to at such a young age. Whether it’s the numerous “educational” apps littering the families iPad, the simple games on the smartphones that make grocery shopping a smoother process, the family or educational shows making up the DVD collection, the in-car entertainment systems, the XBOX and its slew of child friendly titles, the creative building games on our home computers, or the gamut of YouTube videos. It has become obvious that technology is pervading our culture and if we’re not careful, it could manifest undesirable consequences for our children.
This article is primarily aimed towards the child between 0-6 of age; the important foundation years. Here’s a look at what is happening to a child in this age group and why these are the foundation years. The most important note I want to make is that the child between 0-3 is creating who he or she is. That is, his or her will, intelligence, language, and personality. Maria Montessori referred to these as the child’s psychic organs and compares it to the similarity of the child creating its physical organs when it was in its embryonic stage. Now from 3-6 the child is perfecting him or herself. This refinement occurs through the child’s self-initiated and purposeful movements, crystallizing his or her impressions from the first phase. It is done through the obvious movement by way of walking, but more importantly it is movement with the hand that is critical here. The hand is an extension of the intelligence as it is needed to manipulate and take part in active experiences in order for the child to better classify, organize and categorize the world in which he or she lives in, leading to the construction of the individual’s personality.
Young children, develop a sense of self, followed by self-control and it happens with the experiences they have with their external environment. They learn how to act purposefully, control their bodies, and follow the accepted rules for behaviour in the time and culture of their birth. Concentration is essential in this process. Prior to the development of concentration, the mind is a fluctuating field of sensory inputs, emotions, random thoughts, desires, and impulses. Concentration when directed by the will allows all that activity to organize itself. It is the work with the hands, directed towards purposeful activity, that will bring about a deep level of concentration.
When a child is placed in front of a screen, he or she is no longer actively engaging in the world in which he lives. In fact the child’s mind is now disassociated from the environment. Even if the hand manipulates the screen by way of a touch screen, mouse, or controller, the hand is no longer taking part in active real life experiences by way of touch, feel and manipulation. It is no longer connected with the mind in terms of intellectual creation.
Some argue that their child IS in fact concentrated when engaged in a video game and that they are able to sit for hours on end to complete and solve the challenge that awaits them in this virtual world. The kind of concentration that is observed when a child is engaged in a video game or a movie is not the same as the concentration achieved through purposeful work.
According to Dr. Christopher Lucas, associate professor of child psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. “It’s not sustained attention in the absence of rewards,” he said. “It’s sustained attention with frequent intermittent rewards.” – in my words: it’s the quick collection of points, stars gathered, audio sounds indicating success and the fast pacing of the screen changes.
Many studies have concluded that screen time will increase dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter often referred to as the pleasure chemical or motivational chemical. When dopamine levels are constantly being increased from a virtual or digital world that yields quick instant rewards, than the real world becomes a much harder place to concentrate and take interest in.
Children that come away from a purposeful real life activity that incites concentration will demonstrate a state of calmness and appear more centered as opposed to the child who “concentrates” on a screen, who will tend walk away with a state of agitation, moodiness and restlessness. Think about how your child responds to turning off the TV, or enforced limits with video games and consider why this might be the case.
When it comes to screen time with the child between the ages of 0-6 it is critical for the child to absorb the world in which he or she lives in and to develop the concentration to process all the natural beauty and abstract ideas that surround the child through concrete, tangible experiences. It is all too damaging to expect the child to make sense of a world that is digitally created while still functioning in the world he or she must live in.
For the school age child who has graduated from the creation of self, the digital world can more easily be distinguished from reality. This is not to say that screen time should bombard the elementary aged child. In fact all of the neurological studies that suggest extended screen time effects motivational levels and concentration, still applies to the elementary child and in fact also applies to the adult. Limited screen time should be enforced, with a good balance of social and family interactions, physical activity, play, hobbies, and time in nature all woven together with routine at its base.