Digital Pacifiers: Part One

TIPPECANOE CO., Ind. (WLFI) – More than 60 percent of Americans own a smartphone and almost 40 percent own a tablet or computer. For the lives of many Americans, handheld digital devices have become an everyday staple, but adults aren’t the only ones using those devices.

From tablets to smartphones to electronic games, handheld digital devices all seem to be gaining the attention of children, but according to Purdue professor of communication Glenn Sparks, the amount of exposure to these devices is having a negative impact on children.

“We are seeing symptoms, some real symptoms, of addiction and long term attachment to these devices that is not healthy,” said Sparks.

Studies have linked overuse of handheld digital devices to childhood obesity, aggression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and delayed development. IU Health Arnett Child Psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Kowal said she’s seen the effects first hand, but her biggest concern is the impact on social skills.

“I worry about social communication skills. I worry about being able to have kids learn how to play on their own. I worry about their imaginations and their imaginative kind of play,” said Kowal.

Sparks said too much time spent on digital devices and a lack of time socializing could actually be impacting brain development.

“Children ought to be physically engaged with their environment in as many ways as possible. So, when we put a screen in front of them and encourage them to do this one kind of processing for long periods of time, we’re really interfering with the brain’s ability to build up this rich network of neurons that will serve the child better later on,” said Sparks.

So, how much time is too much time?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children ages six to 18 should only be allowed two hours of time per day on these digital devices. Children ages three to five years old should be restricted to one hour per day. As for children ages two and younger, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all.

Both Kowal and Sparks said when the time is up, it’s time to power down.

“I think the amount of time kids are spending on these devices is on the rise, and I think that it potentially, especially for early brain development, could have significant impacts,” said Kowal.

“I really just urge parents to minimize screen time for the first few years of life,” said Sparks. “I think it’s a good standard to keep in mind because it sensitizes parents to the fact that there’s no particular value that’s going to come from interacting with a screen during those years.”

Sparks said although limited time is crucial, parents should also be playing an active role.

“If the adult is there with the child, talking with them, talking through that experience, and making sure they’re connected inter-personally, that’s kind of a buffer for some of the negative effects that happen when you just turn the device over and you let the child just sit there and look at a screen,” said Sparks.

As for parents who may think they are seeing the negative effects of handheld devices, Kowal said the solution is as simple as talking to your family doctor.

“If they are realizing that there is an issue, I think talking to your pediatrician or family doctor about how do I set these limits for these devices and what can work for my child and my family,” said Kowal.

To view digital usage guidelines for children provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics, click here.

Thursday in Part Two, hear what school officials are saying about the use of these devices, and whether it’s been a benefit or just another “Digital Pacifier.”

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