Kids and Electronic Entertainment: Towards Healthier Choices

Children’s and teens’ use of electronic devices have vastly increased over the past several years.  The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that kids ages 8-18 now spend about seven and half hours per day consuming electronic entertainment.  On average, they watch about four hours of television or video, spend two hours playing video games, and surf the internet for over an hour.  Because many children often use multiple devices simultaneously, a typical child may spend a combined total of more than 10 hours daily using entertaining themselves with electronics. These figures do not include time spent listening to digitally recorded music, texting or talking on the phone.

Electronic devices offer children opportunities for recreation, socialization, entertainment, and learning.  Some electronic games help teach academic subjects, and many games have intricate story lines that may enrich children’s imaginations.  When kids keep up with popular shows and games they may be better able to interact with their peers.  Social networking sites offer children an opportunity for socializing, and an opportunity to gain support and guidance from peers.  The internet is now essential for much academic research.

For all their benefits, electronic devices hold a number of pitfalls for children.  Increasing evidence suggests that an excessive use of electronic devices, especially for entertainment, inhibits the development of positive, close relationships.  A report in the March 2010 issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that the more time teens spend watching television or using computers, the less time they spend with family members, and that the quality of teens’ relationships with both parents and peers suffer when they use consume electronic entertainment several hours per day.  Disturbingly, the researchers found that some children and teens used screen-based activities as a substitute for real-life relationships, developing “online relationships” with people who they never met, or even maintaining “para-social” connections with television characters or personalities.A heavy consumption of electronic entertainment can result in myriad other difficulties.  Researchers have found correlations between a heavy use of electronics by teens and premature sexual activity, aggression, decreased empathy, attention problems, obesity, and poor school performance.  “Electronic addiction” is a real phenomenon wherein children as well as adults come to crave electronic entertainment as a way to cope with feelings such as boredom and anger.  Even children who use electronics less frequently may face negative consequences.  Violent or sexually explicit games may pose particular dangers, and children may face threats online in the form of cyber-bullying, sexting, and adult predators.

What can parents to do to encourage a moderate, responsible use of electronic entertainment?  The pervasiveness of electronic media makes blanket prohibitions impractical for most parents.  Many researchers, educators, and child development experts recommend a comprehensive approach involving positive role modeling, dialogue and participation, reasonable limits, and the encouragement of positive and responsible media use is most likely to be effective.

Parents may find the following actions helpful in encouraging their children’s responsible use of electronics:

Become knowledgeable about the latest games and gadgets.  You will be far better able to influence your children if you are aware of what is out there.

Work with the other caretakers in the household to be sure that you are giving a similar messages and limits.

Limit your own use of electronic devices, especially for entertainment.  Avoid playing games or watching shows that feature sex or aggression in front of children.

Avoid power struggles as much as possible by engaging in dialogues where you validate what children want and offer them choices.

Carve out time when all electronics, including phones and internet connections, are turned off throughout the household.

Monitor children’s use of all forms of media, and limit or prohibit their exposure to violence and sex.

Limit the pervasiveness of electronic devices. Do not put television in children’s bedrooms. Keep computers in public settings, especially for younger children.  Limit children’s use of handheld devices that play video and offer games, including phones and portable game players.

Learn about the social networking sites children and teens use, and limit, prohibit, or monitor their participation in them.

-Encourage alternatives to electronics, such as board games and reading.

Children are growing up in a world where electronic entertainment are ubiquitous and available 24/7.  Those who have difficulty regulating their use of electronic devices often find that devices control them rather the other way around, with many detrimental effects.  Parents who learn about the world of electronic entertainment, place parameters on usage, and encourage responsible use, will better enable their children to take productive advantage of the enormous opportunities of these powerful technologies.

Posted by Jonah Green

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