Screenagers: Awake from the trance

Hey kids (and parents) take a break from the electronics
May 11, 2016

Youngsters are drawn, trancelike, to the lighted screens of electronic devices like Sleeping Beauty to the sharp spindle of the spinning wheel. It may not be good for them, but they just can’t resist.

The problem of excessive screen-time for kids is the subject of a recent film documentary, “Screenagers.”

A New York Times article on the documentary says this:

“The average child in America spends more time consuming electronic media than going to school, with many teen-agers going online ‘almost constantly.’ And parents aren’t necessarily being good role models. A British study showed that while six in 10 parents worried that their children spend too much time in front of a screen, seven in 10 children worry that their parents are the ones who are plugged in and tuned out.”
The documentary “Screenagers” looks at how digital devices impact the adolescent brain and family dynamics.
Dr. Melissa Voutsalath, DO., a primary care physician with UCHealth Primary Care – Monument, regards excessive screen time as “absolutely” a health concern.

“Excessive media use can lead to obesity, attention problems, sleep issues and difficulty in school,” she said. “The social network also provides the risk of exposure to predators and risky behaviors.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics says not to let kids 2 and younger use any electronic devices.

“That includes TV or other entertainment media,” Voutsalath said. More recent research suggests that some toys with bright lights and noises may actually interfere with development and learning rather than promote it, she added.

For older children and teens, the recommended limit is two hours a day. Yet most recent studies show that the average American spends more than four hours a day hunched over electronic devices – and that teens spend more than six hours a day.

“The problem is universal,” Voutsalath said. “I think we as parents should start to pay attention and intervene with our kids to decrease their screen time.”

What’s the harm?

Dr. Melissa VoutsalathThe effects of excessive screen time are being studied. For example, what does it do to the brain?

“In young brains, it may have a negative impact on learning,” Voutsalath said. “I think it’s a sensory overload for these small brains that are developing.”

The effects on eyesight also are being examined. Some studies are showing that too much screen-time can have a negative impact, not only on eyesight, but also on the ability to focus. So much time is spent focusing on the near-object (the screen) that youngsters may lose the ability to focus far away and see the big picture – like when learning to drive.

Some children (and many adults) also may experience neck and shoulder pain or headaches. And constantly bending over a screen to see it better can affect posture, too, Voutsalath said.

Parents are as guilty as kids when it comes to this issue, she added, and should be aware of their own use.

“It goes both ways,” she said. “Maybe you’re texting on your phone and not listening to your kids. That’s not good.”

Childhood obesity is a serious issue, Dr. Voutsalath said. “And the more time they spend on the screen, the less time they are outside, active and running around or playing, and that contributes to the obesity problem.”

Dr. Melissa Voutsalath, DO., is a primary care physician with UCHealth Primary Care – Monument.

Also, many video games and movies that are accessible to children and teens via electronic media are rife with violence.

“They may become more desensitized to (violence) and gain more knowledge of it,” Voutsalath said.

So what can parents do?

She has some advice for parents. “I don’t think electronic media is going anywhere, so we need to monitor use and help kids make wise media choices. Be a good role model. Don’t be on your device all the time when you’re with your kids.”

Limit screen time, she suggested. Don’t allow devices in bedrooms at night, or at the dinner table, for example.

“Set up screen-free areas in your house. Maybe prohibit them from bedrooms altogether,” she said.  “That way, parents know what their children are doing and if they are making wise media choices. Set family time when nobody is on their device, such as at dinner.  Have a conversation, instead. We’re no longer effectively communicating.”

Find other activities for them, she suggested.

“Parents should promote more family time, more outside activities, and cultivate hobbies. Read a book. Play a game. Or go for a hike. After all, we live in beautiful Colorado!”

To make an appointment with Dr. Voutsalath, please call 719-364-9930.

About the author

Linda DuVal is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs and a regular contributor to UCHealth Today. She has written travel articles for major U.S. newspapers and national, regional and local magazines. She spent 32 years as an award-winning writer, reporter and editor for The Gazette in Colorado Springs.