Screen-Free Week (formerly TV-Turnoff) is an annual event where children, families, schools and communities are encouraged to turn off screens and "turn on life." Instead of relying on television programming for entertainment, participants read, daydream, explore, enjoy nature, and spend time with family and friends. This year it is April 30-May 6th and we encourage you to Get out there and have fun !
Douglas Goldsmith, executive director of The Children’s Center and a licensed child psychologist, remembers a time when some parents threw the family television in the trash in desperate hopes of spending more quality time together.
"For a while we heard that," Goldsmith said. "That was before cable and satellite television. Now parents are as addicted to TV as the kids."
Never mind violent video games and "SpongeBob SquarePants." The "game-changing" episode of the latest HBO series is the stuff of adult discussion around the water-cooler. Internet access is the new lifeblood. It’s harder than ever for adults to set examples for children when it comes to time spent sitting in front of a glowing screen.
If you’re a parent, especially to a newborn or toddler age 3 or younger, the stakes couldn’t be higher, recent research shows. Television conditions developing minds to expect unreasonable levels of stimulation from the reality of actual surroundings. According to Dmitri Christakis, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and director of the Center on Human Development and Disability in Seattle, this increases vastly the chance your child will exhibit attention problems later in life. It also impedes the chances your child will demonstrate an interest in novel objects and ideas, traits crucial to learning and building skills.
Even past age 3, chances are great excess screen time will reap the unsavory harvest of obese children uninterested in activities that can’t live up to the excitement and stimulation of their favorite program. It also can increase the chance of sleep problems.
"We’re ‘technologizing’ childhood today in a way that’s unprecedented," Christakis tells an audience in a recent TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talk available on YouTube. Christakis will be in Salt Lake City on April 19 to present the findings of his recent research regarding media and children’s behavioral development to Utah pediatricians as part of Intermountain Health Care’s Pediatric Grand Rounds program.
In 1970, the average age a child began watching television was 4 years old, he noted. Today that average stands at 4 months old. Between the ages of 1 month and 2 years, the human brain triples in size. Growing along with its size is the network of connections between different regions of the brain. Television stimulates those connections beyond what they’re accustomed to. Even a program as seemingly innocuous as "Baby Einstein" accomplishes this, offering developing brains up to seven scene changes in a 20-second excerpt.
All that stimulation can be counteracted with quality time parents spend with their children engaged in more participatory, cognitive stimulation such as reading aloud or singing to them, playing outside, or visiting the museum. Christakis said every hour of cognitive stimulation decreases by 30 percent the negative impact of one hour of television.
For busy parents, the trick is finding the time and energy to spend with your children apart from letting them sit in front of a television. It’s an all-too familiar challenge, Goldsmith said.
"When I ask many children what they’d like to do instead of watch television, I get blank stares," he said. "Parents should spend time exploring what their children like to do. We need to be cheerleaders for them and get them excited about what they could do instead of watch television. If you just say, ‘Turn off the TV and color,’ they’ll give you a look that says, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ "
Also important, said Chuck Norlin, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah, is never letting children eat in front of the television. It’s so distracting that children, and even adults, lose sense of when they’ve eaten enough food. Letting kids have a television set in their bedroom is a surefire way to disrupt sleeping patterns, as the flickering light stimulates the brain long after they’ve nodded off.
The best way to pre-empt time your children spend in front of a computer or television is to engage them about how they spent their day right when you pick them up from school, or shortly after getting home. That said, Norlin believes parents should not feel too guilty about telling their children to turn off the television without offering a ready alternative.
"Boredom can be good if it helps kids figure out how to keep themselves occupied," Norlin said. "It’s not necessarily the parents’ job to keep the child ‘unbored.’ If kids don’t learn how to entertain themselves, they quickly become even more dependent on parents for amusement."
1. Schedule it » Your child attends school at a set time. Your family eats meals at a set time. Do the same for time your children are allowed to watch television, play video games or surf the Internet.
2. Limit it » The amount varies, but most pediatricians agree that one hour per day is sufficient, with any amount over two hours excessive.
3. Ban channel surfing » Television scrambles young minds enough as it is. Mindless channel surfing exacerbates it. Let your child name a favorite one-hour show, letting him watch straight through for focus. Then turn off the television.
4. Discover other activities » Coloring, drawing, hiking, dancing to music or playing outside are all activities most children also enjoy apart from watching “The Powerpuff
5. Watch together » Parents are increasingly shocked by what their children are exposed to through television. If you don’t want to be among these parents, the best you can do is watch what your children watch.
**Thanks to the SLC trib and Ben Fulton for a great article!