In this day and age of homework being done on iPads and kids learning how to use computers practically from the womb, screen time has turned into an evil necessity. What toddler doesn't know how to swipe and scroll through the pictures on their mom's phone nowadays? And we all know how addictive one seemingly innocent episode of "Doc McStuffins" can be when you try to turn it off and your child screams bloody murder. But is all this enough to start classifying screen addiction as an actual clinically diagnosed disorder?
Doctors in China would say yes it is, and the nation has gone so far as to create media-free rehabilitation centers for children afflicted with screen addiction. In a new documentary airing on PBS next Monday, "Web Junkies," viewers are exposed to the dramatically harmful effects that exposure to long periods of electronic media have on certain teenagers. These Chinese teens are playing video games for 8-10 hours a day—without eating or going to the bathroom—and seem to have lost all sense of what the real world is like. In essence, all of the time spent consuming media in front of a screen is seeping into their real life by changing their perspective and altering behavior.
The Seattle Children's Research Institute's Dimitri A. Christakis corroborates that "those who watch a lot of simulated violence, common in many popular video games, can become immune to it, more inclined to act violently themselves and less likely to behave empathetically." Clearly this is something that no parents want to see happen to their child. And while the documentary is set in China, it's not uncommon to see teens in the U.S.—and just about everywhere else—become lost for hours in various forms of electronic media.
So exactly how careful do we as parents have to be?The American Academy of Pediatrics still maintains that children under the age of 2 should not be exposed to any screen time, as their little brains are still rapidly developing and actual interaction with humans is how they learn best. The AAP further contends that older children should spend no more than one or two hours a day with entertainment media. While there are educational shows that do actually teach kids something of value, it's all about moderation. Common sense tells most parents that leaving your kid to use the TV as a babysitter instead of actually interacting with them for hours on end is probably not the best idea.
Clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair tells the New York Times that the primary issue with screen time occurs because parents are "throwing screens at children all day long, giving them distractions rather than teaching them how to self-soothe, to calm themselves down. ... Children have to know that life is fine off the screen. It's interesting and good to be curious about other people, to learn how to listen. It teaches them social and emotional intelligence, which is critical for success in life."