The Real Impact of Excess Screen Time on Children

Montessori teacher, Christina Clemer, talks about the worrying trends she’s witnessing in the classroom

You’ve probably read the studies and heard the warnings, but does screen time make a tangible difference in our children?  My experience teaching young children says yes.

While there is some debate on when screen time should be introduced and how much is too much, many studies outline the negative impact of excess screen time on young children.

The potential effects include delayed language, possible attention deficiencies, and increased violent behavior.  You can find more information in the AAP’s guidelines.

While these studies make sense in the abstract, I was surprised by how clearly I could see the impact of excessive screen time in the Montessori classroom where I teach. Here are four very real effects I’ve seen in the classroom.

  1. Social Isolation

Watching too much TV can make it hard for a child to relate to his/her peers.

There was a very sweet little boy in my class a few years ago who always wanted to talk about his favorite video game.  All he got in return from the other children was a series of blank stares.  They weren’t familiar with the game, or any video games for that matter, so it made no sense for them.

Children who use a lot of screen time tend to want to talk about it, which can be isolating.

  1. Decreased Creativity

While children naturally make up their own imaginative games, children who watch a lot of TV  often pretend to be characters they’ve seen instead.

Is there anything really wrong with this?  Well no, not necessarily.

I’ve seen children pretending pieces of tree bark are iPads and large sticks are lightsabers.  This is fine to an extent, but it makes me wonder what they could imagine if their minds were free of these influences.

It presents a missed opportunity for creativity.

Reenacting scenes from television is not the same as creating their own worlds using nothing but their imaginations.

  1. Shorter Attention Span

Most television shows developed for young children are extremely fast paced, flashing quickly from one scene to the next.

If a child watches a lot of shows like this, it makes it really hard for him to slow down and concentrate on class work, even in a Montessori classroom where children are encouraged to move around freely.

  1. Violent Play

Perhaps the most disturbing potential effect of too much screen time is increased violence, both in play and with social interactions.

I have seen children who watch a lot of television pretend to draw a weapon and hit another child with it when they have a disagreement.  I have seen them do “super hero moves” that include kicking another child.

Young children are not always able to separate pretend from reality and they tend to process what they’ve seen through play, which includes violence.

There are of course plenty of kids’ programs around that don’t include this kind of violence, so the quality of what our children watch is just as important as the quantity.

So beyond banning all screen time, what can you do? Here are some things to keep in mind:

Model what you want to see: Children are watching us to learn about healthy media relationships.  Set aside media-free times so your child doesn’t always see you with your phone.

Background tv counts: Having the TV on decreases the amount parents talk to and interact directly with their children.

Young children learn through experience:Despite educational marketing, infants and toddlers are unlikely to learn much from television.

Watch together: Be there to monitor content and to discuss what he/she’s seeing and what is real versus fantasy.

It’s never too late: If you want to decrease your family’s screen time, try making the change at a natural point like after a trip or a move.  This can be an easier time to change habits, as routines have already been disrupted.

Television and computers are a normal part of our modern lives and it is inevitable that children will be exposed to them to a certain extent.  Through being mindful of how much and what type of content our children are consuming, we can help our children become their best selves.