Legislation would encourage parents to set limits for screen time

As children born after the release of the iPhone enter their teens, more and more studies suggest that too much screen time is harmful for developing children — even as kids are spending more time on their phones than ever.

A study by the National Survey of Children’s Health in 2016 found that 58% of Hawaii children aged 5 or younger spent more than one hour a day looking at screens, behavior which has been linked to difficulties in learning and socialization.

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In order to increase awareness of the problem, a bill currently in the state Legislature calls for public education to encourage parents to set limits on how much screen time to allow their children.

“These screens are changing everything about the way the world works,” said Puna Sen. Russell Ruderman, co-introducer of the bill. “But they’re also changing the ways our brains are wired.”

Lauren Paer, an advocate for screen time awareness, said that too much screen exposure at an early age can interfere with several different aspects of a child’s mental development.

Paer, a member of the Honolulu Waldorf School board, said even young children can forgo sleep in order to play a video game, which in turn can increase the likelihood of developing disorders such as depression. Or, because video games recalibrate the body’s physiological reward system — with games encouraging players to continue by triggering the generation of dopamine — children can have problems developing interests in other activities, which Paer said is very similar to how addicts behave.

And constant media consumption and social media connectivity wreaks havoc on children’s relationships with parents and each other, Paer said.

“There’s a sociological stress to deal with,” Paer said. “When I was growing up, dealing with middle school politics was hard, it always is, but at least then I got to go home and get a break. These days, they don’t get a break. They’re always worried about what they’re posting about you or if they’re sharing pictures of something you weren’t invited to or something.”

Even if parents can reduce their child’s screen time, parents’ own screen time can still have a negative effect, Paer said: Phones can become rivals for parents’ attention in the eyes of children.

“They’re losing the socialization that is the substrate of our society,” Ruderman said. “We learn how to be human by watching other people.”

Although Paer acknowledged that certain types of screen time are more beneficial than others — using technology as an opportunity to create, rather than consume, helps a child develop, she said, as do shared media experiences like watching movies with the family — she said that children 2 years old and younger shouldn’t have any regular daily screen exposure. The World Health Organization recommends that children between 2 and 4 years old be limited to one hour or less per day.

The bill, which Paer helped to write, would establish a state Department of Health website that links to research on the effects of screen time on young development and provides guidelines and resources for parents to help manage their children’s screen access.

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“Part of the problem is that parents aren’t getting consistent information from doctors,” Paer said. “And I empathize with them; the screens are on-demand babysitters … but I think (limiting screen time) will help parenting get easier in the mid- to long-term. It will be easier to develop connections with your kids.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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