Screen Time Might Be Good for Kids’ Brains, But You Should Still Pull the Plug

Anytime too many people start agreeing with each other, I get suspicious. So, recently, I’ve grown a bit uncomfortable with the fact that many parents agree with my assertion that screen time (TV, videogames, and computers) is bad for kids.

I started to think about all the benefits of screen time. Steven Johnson has written an entire book making this case entitled, Everything Bad is Good for You.

Essentially, Johnson’s argument is that a great deal of kids’ screen activities today are quite complex. Videogames like World of Warcraft or online social networks like MySpace or Facebook demand cognitive skills beyond the reach of most middle-aged adults. I would add, parenthetically, that the least complex screen medium, television, is falling out of favor among children at a rapid rate.Johnson argues that these complex screen activities strengthen IQs considerably more than old-fashioned, less complex activities of decades gone by. I haven’t read his book closely enough to evaluate that assertion, but I do agree with the fundamental assertion that children are not wasting their brains away sitting in front of screens.

All this doesn’t mean that you should give your kids as much screen time as they want. In spite of my acceptance of Johnson’s central thesis, I still maintain that parents should severely curtail or eliminate screen time for young children, and ration it for tweens and teenagers. Here’s why:

  1. Very little kids – e.g. pre-reading age kids – need to get a firm grasp of the physical world before they explore “screen worlds.” More 10-year-olds than ever, I’d conjecture, have a hard time dealing with real people and real world situations. That’s a big problem.
  2. If left to do whatever they please, many children will not acquire adequate social skills to deal with real people in the real, physical world. After all, the default in most communities is for kids to stay inside and escape into screens. I’d argue that all kids will end up getting exposed to screen activities whether their parents like it or not, so parents are wise to embargo or at least ration these.
  3. Our bodies clearly prefer physical exercise to the sedentary lifestyle of a videogame nerd. As kids mature into adults, and then to middle-aged adults, their brains are going to need their bodies to be physically active. A brain of massive intellectual capacity is of little use if it’s attached to an obese body with diabetes on dialysis.
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