The Top 5 Reasons Screen Time Hurts Kids

By Eliot Kersgaard

By the time the typical kid turns 12 in the Untied States, they will have spent a full 2 years of their life looking at a screen.1 Thats a third of their entire waking life! (By a different estimate, kids aged 5-16 spend 6.5 hours per day in front of a screen- over half of their waking lives!)2

And with smartphones becoming even more ubiquitous for youngsters, that number is sure to rise. Now there are even specially designed tablet and phone mounts for strollers to keep your infant entertained when strolling the mall or the neighborhood. And while that mount is only $8, the true costs for development are much higher. So we present to you our countdown of the top five reasons screen time is harmful for kids.

Already convinced?

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Number Five: Elimination of Hands-On Activity

The Number Five reason why screen time hurts kids is that screens eliminate hands-on activity, with consequences for development. Screens are two dimensional objects that, at most, require the simultaneous operation of two fingers. As such, screentime renders our hands, the fantastic tools they are, about as useful as our elbows. Without anything to manipulate, our hands’ ability to understand and manipulate the world disintegrates.3 For example, writing longhand as opposed to with a keyboard engages more parts of our brain associated with memory, connecting our knowledge with other experiences and improving learning outcomes.4

Abandoning our hands is essentially a rejection of what makes us human. Our ability to walk upright and use our hands as tools is what has allowed us to succeed in virtually ever environment on Earth. Our hands are our link between our minds and the material world around us. Now that children can be entertained endlessly without physical effort of any kind, this vital psychological and neurological link with the outside world is becoming atrophied.

But what’s the big deal? Maybe with increased automation, no one will need to use their hands in the future anyway. But wait a minute, it turns out that skilled trade workers (such as construction workers, electricians, welders, plumbers and the like) are the hardest-to-fill jobs in the United States, and becoming more so.5 Luckily, it’s not like our crumbling infrastructure6,7,8 will be in need of repair anytime soon.

Number Four: Communication

The Number Four reason why screen time hurts kids is that excessive use of screens for communication hampers in-person communication skills, one of the most in-demand skills for 21st century jobs (not to mention one of the skills most required in daily life).9 Many studies have concluded that screen time can be associated with a variety of communication delays. One found that for every additional 30-minutes in daily screen time, risk of language delay increased by 50%.10 Another found that “Children who started watching television at [less than] 12 months of age and watched television [more than] 2 hours per day were approximately six times more likely to have language delays.” 11

Number Three: Mental Health

The Number Three reason that screen time hurts kids is that screen time is implicated in an array of mental health issues. Screen addiction can lead to depression, anti-social, and self- and socially-destructive behavior, traits we might also recognize in other forms of addiction.12 When absorbed into the soothing whir of the screen, nothing else seems to matter and personal upkeep falls to the wayside.

While the United States medical community has yet to officially acknowledge screen addiction as a mental health disorder, “the Chinese Health Organization (CHO) has called ‘Internet Addiction Disorder’ one of the leading medical problems facing China, with an estimated 20 million screen-addicted Chinese youth, while South Korea has over 400 tech-addiction rehab centers.” The toll on the individual ripples out into their social and home life: “Their school work begins to suffer; their interpersonal relationships begin to suffer. Perhaps their health and hygiene also begin to decline as the addiction gets worse. Oftentimes we see a person lying about, or hiding their screen usage. We see screen addicts whose real-life experiences get replaced with their digital experiences” (Dr. Nicholas Kardaras via Goop).

In addition to its addictive potential, increased screen time has been linked with increased rates of insomnia and depression.13 While this correlation doesn’t imply that screen time is causing depression (for example, screen time could also serve as a coping mechanism for already-depressed people), just speaking from personal experience, I have found that I never feel better after an hour or two scrolling Facebook or sucked into a computer game. And in some cases, the link is more dramatic. In one particularly sobering case, a 13-year old boy committed suicide in 2004 in an attempt to join his video gaming heroes in the afterlife. His suicide notes were written from the perspective of his character in World of Warcraft.14

Number Two: Ecological Connection

The Number Two reason why screen time hurts kids is that every minute spent with a screen is one fewer minute spent in connection with our living planet. From the National Wildlife Fund’s Be Out There report, only one quarter of kids play outside daily compared to three quarters of their parents at their age (even in rural areas), and the average kid spends “only four to seven minutes to day on unstructured outdoor play like climbing trees, drawing with chalk on the sidewalk, taking a nature walk, or playing a game of catch.”15 Not going outside has cognitive and academic consequences. In a survey of 2,000 teachers, 78% responded that they felt unstructured outdoor play improves concentration and 75% felt that students were more creative and better problem solvers.

For us, though, the central reason that lack of outside and nature time bugs us is that the natural world offers a wealth of inspiration for the challenges faced by humanity. By that same token, lack of nature connection is one of the central causes of the challenges facing humanity. Let me explain with a simple chart.

Number One: Screen Time Kills Creativity

The top reason why screen time hurts kids is that creativity falls to the wayside as kids become absorbed into the fast-paced and high-stimulus digital world. We call this effect “zombification” to evoke the glazed-over eyes and single-minded trance that quickly washes over you when sucked into a screen. We’ve ranked Creativity #1 on this list because it’s our ability to think on our feet, create new things, incorporate emotion, and make unexpected associations that sets us apart from machines and are our best bet to keep us safe from AI. Not only that, creativity is quite literally what propels humanity forward. As Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”

Screens are creativity killers for three reasons.

First, many screen-based activities require no or very little input from the user. A video is simply watched, and what you see is often just what you get. Many video games can be mastered with simple, repetitive actions.

Second, as we mentioned in reason #5, screens do not engage our hands and therefore, our ability to create is fundamentally limited by digital media. While creatives often produce their final work with a computer, you will still find sticky notes, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, pom-poms, tape, markers, legos, Brackitz, and many other prototyping and tactile materials in the offices of the most creative companies.

Third, screens are a reliable cure for boredom that can be activated with the click of a button. Boredom, on the other hand, is a surefire way to promote creativity, as our mind seeks creative solutions to become engaged and end our boredom. Indeed, while many claim that “necessity is the mother of invention,” more often invention springs from play and entertainment. In one study where participants were tasked with coming up with ideas for how to utilize a pair of cups, half of the participants were intentionally bored beforehand. Their ideas were more numerous and more creative.16

Looking for a way to get your kids engaged without a screen?

Check out this color-mixing STEAM activity your kids will LOVE.



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About the Author:

Eliot Kersgaard is an artist, educator and entrepreneur working to facilitate a cultural shift emphasizing justice and play. He is the founder and director of Myra Makes.

One Comment

  1. Lois G Witte October 29, 2018 at 8:24 am - Reply

    Great article. Everyone with a kiddo in their life needs to read this!

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