Many parents have an unfounded fear that their child will fall hopelessly behind their peers if he or she does not have a tablet or computer full of “educational” apps and activities from birth. Many believe early technology use is the key to acceptance at a top-tier college and thus, a bright future. Truth be told, those omnipresent screens in the home and school environment may actually be detrimental to normal child development and learning.
Too much “screen time” is very real topic of concern to medical doctors and teachers, as well as parents. What do experts mean by the phrase “screen time?” This is a blanket term used to describe quite literally any activity where a child looks at a screen for a period of time. This can include computer time, television and movie viewing, video gaming, as well as smart phone, tablet, or e-reader use.
Did you know that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero screen time for children from infancy to age three? Yes – zero. That means none at all. No more than two hours per day is recommended for children ages three to eighteen. That’s quite a contrast to the reality many of us have observed. Children and teens seem to be staring at screens almost constantly. Addiction to technology is a real problem among today’s children.
Some of the adverse effects doctors see in children with excessive screen time (perhaps the majority of children today) include: obesity, poor sleep quality and quantity, and aggression. Many teachers would probably concur with these physicians as they are teaching tired, grumpy students with pervasive attention problems.
Given the observations of many medical and teaching professionals and parents, it certainly seems wise to limit screen time and promote healthier alternatives. Fortunately, there are tried-and-true activities suitable for growing minds that still are enjoyable and engaging to children and teens alike. Technology may change, but the human mind still develops as it did in past generations.
Substitutes for Screen Time
Wise parents know better than to simply cut off the computer or game system and walk away. Children need appropriate leisure activities to fill the time they would have spent in front of a screen.
Traditional alternatives include reading books, of course. Art supplies, crafts, blocks, science kits, and non-electronic toys are all quality activities that help developing minds with thinking skills and small motor skills. Indoor and outdoor sports combat obesity while developing large motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and social skills like teamwork and sportsmanship. However, technology need not be totally rejected!
Modern technology has blessed us with a level of quality in audio that previous generations never dreamed possible. Audio books and audio dramas (like the radio shows of old) are a pleasure to listen to with today’s digital quality. Listening is a valuable life skill and is largely developed through practice. In pre-literate societies, storytelling was the method by which learning was passed on to youth and the storytellers were highly revered for their skill.
While most people accept that it is good to read to young children who cannot yet read, it is unfortunate that reading aloud often stops as soon as the child starts reading on his or her own. Children can understand literature that is above their reading level, so a parent or teacher who reads aloud is giving children access to ideas they cannot yet fluently read. Since reading aloud is slower than silent reading, it also allows time for listeners to savor the language and create rich mental images.
Audio Books and Audio Drama
Not all parents are equally gifted at reading aloud with dramatic flair. For those who need some help, resources abound. Many authors are now creating their books in physical, e-reader, and audio formats in order to reach a larger audience. Classics are also being converted to audio formats for adults and children alike. Parents who may be uncomfortable reading aloud, particularly in the language of a past era, can get classic literature into their children by using audio dramas like Under Drake’s Flag and In Freedom’s Cause. These audio dramas are true art forms – recorded live on set with real actors to make the stories even more authentic.
Research tells us that listening to great literature can actually be superior to reading alone when the goal is to create visual imagery, as in reading fiction. It seems when the brain is busy decoding words, this distracts from the brain’s capacity for forming imaginative pictures of what is being read. Given this research, it seems wise to have children spend time reading to develop reading skills and also spend time listening to develop mental imagery skills. This is why audio drama makes a great addition to any reading curriculum!
Children develop vocabulary naturally by hearing words used in context. Listening to classic literature in audio drama format offers a far richer world of vocabulary than any sit-com or a children’s “educational” television program. When parents listen along and discuss these stories with their children, this reinforces the importance of reading and communication. Parents and children who read together and listen together then have interesting ideas to talk about with one another.
Community versus Isolation
Educators are fond of talking about the socialization of children. Real socialization happens in context, as children interact with human beings. There can be no comparison between a computer game and a human parent reading a book to a child and discussing it with him or her. Books and audio dramas can be a communal experience. Families where every person has a screen in their hand may be physically together; but this isn’t socializing or even really spending quality time together. Sending an occasional text across a room is no substitute for face-to-face conversation or for family time together enjoying good literature.
American Academy of Pediatrics. 2013. Managing Media: We Need a Plan. Retrieved December 11, 2014 from http://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/managing-media-we-need-a-plan.aspx
Dembling, S. 2011. Audio Books vs. Book Books: Which Does the Brain Prefer? Retrieved February 10, 2015 from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/research/2011/audio-books-vs-book-books-which-does-the-brain-prefer/