Screen time, Imagination, and Thinking

June 12, 2011
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Every year when I go to see my doctor he talks to me about my brain and asks me how much screen time I have. I tell him I do not spend much time watching T.V. or on the computer. I let him know I prefer to be outside, riding my bike, reading, making art and building with legos. He seems pleased and goes on to draw a picture of my brain on a small piece of paper. His drawing is simple with dots that represent the brain cells. He illustrates a brain with; then he draws a brain with loads of connections - my brain, he explains, because I have little screen time and do many other things.

The last time I went to see him, I questioned him on his “brain and screen time” theory. I told him about a friend of mine who plays video games every chance he gets and is on the computer all the time doing little else besides homework. My friend hardly studies and spends only a little time doing his homework and still gets all A’s. All his work seems so easy for him. All these years you (doctor) and my parents have been telling me that screen time is bad for my brain and I will not be as smart if I have too much screen time. So I wanted to know why my friend was so smart and got better grades than me. My doctor looked at me astonished, and asked me if I really thought school and grades were a measure of intelligence and how well my brain works?

I thought about what he said.

I wanted to believe him, so I did some research about the effects of screen time on the brain. It is clear, a lot of screen time is very bad, and has an impact on the brain. Heavy media use, spending more than three hours a day watching TV, playing video games, texting, and/or looking at a computer affects attention, behavior, imagination, grades, emotional health, and obesity. A study from the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that children 8-18 spend 7.5 hours using a smartphone, watching a TV, or being on a computer every day.

Screen time is taking the place of other interests such as playing music, being and playing out doors, after school activities and reading. Another problem with too much screen time is that our brain needs time to learn, remember information and come up with new ideas. Research suggests that time away from your “screen” makes your brain clearer and more alert. Filling every spare minute multitasking with some electronic device is very fatiguing to the brain.

There have always been time wasters and distractions, but between computers, cellphones, and TV there is a constant stream of stimuli, making it hard to focus and learn. The research suggests that young people’s brains may be less able to sustain attention if they are constantly switching tasks. Michael Rich of Harvard Medical School says that the brain is rewired to constantly move on to the next task, not for staying on task. The brain gets so used to jumping to the next thing, that it gets used to it, instead of sustaining attention. He worries that raising children in front of a screen may permanently wire their brains differently. Screen time also affects sleep quality and the ability to retain information. The problem with being so connected and with having so much information at your fingertips, you never have to wonder anything. Every question can be answered right away. This immediacy means we don't have to hypothesize or imagine what the answer is. This effects the motivation to learn and imagine.

After all the research I have done on the effects of screen time on the brain I understand that the limits my parents give me are for more than just a time and are for my own good. Research shows that children that have time limits spend less time in front of a screen and more time doing other things. Many countries around the world have suggested time limits for children and screen time. The USA does not have suggested limits and packs every school with a lot of technology. So, not only are children getting a lot of screen time out side of school, but they are getting it in school as well.

After all the reading and research I have done, I realize that my doctor is right about screen time and my brain. I also see how important it is for me to pay attention and limit the amount of screen time I have. I need to be sure to fill my time with activities I enjoy that do not involve a screen, if I want my brain to be its best.

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