Entity explores the balance between playing on an iPad and playing outside.

In a world where technology is growing almost faster than we can control, how are parents able to determine the balance between kids using technology and playing outside? Unfortunately, since interactive devices such as smartphones and iPads are so new, very little information is available and parents don’t have a set formula to follow.

Let’s start by digging into what we know about technology so far. A University of Michigan study on kids and television show that “Kids ages 6-11 spend about 28 hours a week in front of the TV.” That’s four hours a day on just TV alone (not counting the time spent on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets).

Although some TV shows can be educational and can aid in children learning, most of the time kids are watching TV with a mindlessness that borders on blind consumption. This consumption of information can include inappropriate content such as violence, sexual activity and drug and alcohol use.

So parents know that TV can be harmful for kids and that it’s important to limit TV viewing time during the week. But what do we know about devices like smartphones and tablets?

Since this technology is so new, little is known about the effects of its use on kids in the long-run. We do know that video and computer games can be educational resources for kids in developmental years. Unlike when they’re watching TV, kids make interactive choices when playing video games. These games are not always as passive as TV and can often stimulate learning in the form of ‘edutainment’ – learning while being entertained at the same time.

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In addition, when kids start using technology at a younger age, they are able to adapt to the digital world easier than kids who are not exposed to technology. This is rather important today, at a time when everyone is expected to have at least a basic understanding of technology and its many uses.  

Marjorie Hogan, pediatrician at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics told NPR, “If used appropriately, [digital media] is wonderful. We don’t want to demonize media, because it’s going to be a part of everybody’s lives increasingly, and we have to teach children how to make good choices around it, how to limit it and how to make sure it’s not going to take the place of all the other good stuff out there.”

There’s no doubt that such technological tools can be used for good. However, problems arise when we use it too much. As with most things in life, moderation is key. When used for only an hour or two per day, video and app games can help kids learn and improve their reaction speeds and spatial awareness. But when this hour extends into three, four or even as many as eight hours, these games are no longer beneficial.

According to a series of surveys taken by Common Sense Media, since 2011, the percentage of kids using mobile devices has increased from 38 percent to 72 percent. And for kids using tablets, that’s an increase from eight percent to 40 percent.

Kids now have greater access to mobile devices than ever before. And because harried parents need to keep their children distracted or from getting into mischief, kids at younger and younger ages are consuming vast amounts of media.

This means that kids are spending up to seven hours every day staring at screens, says the American Academy of Pediatrics. Instead of playing outside in the backyard, at a park or at a friend’s house, kids are at home playing on smartphones and tablets or watching TV.

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This extended time indoors is largely due to a fear on the parent’s part that playing outside is unsafe for kids. Many parents grew up in an environment that was freer in the sense that their parents were less afraid of ‘dangerous’ activities or people outside of the house. Parents today are generally more reticent to allow their kids to leave the house to play outside without supervision. As a result, kids who are shut indoors turn to online media as entertainment.

This kind of lifestyle does not promote healthy living. Kids who spend almost all their free time outside of school on devices are more likely to be overweight or obese. But limiting time spend outdoors does more than just promote weight gain. According to Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist writing for the Children & Nature Network, “As we continue to decrease children’s time and space to move and play outdoors, we are seeing a simultaneous rise in the number of children that are presenting with sensory deficits … Secondary to restricted movement and less time outdoors on a regular basis, more and more children are walking around with underdeveloped vestibular (balance) systems.”

Kids, especially those under the age of two, need to be outside and exploring the world in order to develop healthy bodies. While technology can be used educationally, it is incredibly important to remember that kids need to be outside far more than they need to play games. Limiting screen use during the ages of three to 18 can greatly improve control of the body and elasticity of the mind.

For children under the age of two years old, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that they receive no screen time at all. “Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” Babies learn how to interpret emotions, grasp objects, crawl, walk and speak from people, not two-dimensional characters on a tablet.

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In fact, young children require face-to-face interaction on a daily basis in order to build up their social skills. However, a study by UCLA has recently shown that babies are not the only ones that need face-to-face interaction. The study involved over 100 sixth-grade students, half of whom went to a camp which banned technology use and half of whom stayed at school.

The study found that “sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.”

This was after only five days at camp. Clearly, kids of all ages, not just babies up to two years old, need that interaction between humans in order to learn and grow to be a properly-adjusted adult.

There’s no question of how easy it is to quiet down your child by simply turning on the TV or unlocking your phone. But there’s also no question that, for both the parent and the child, this can turn into a habit. And then an addiction. So finding that sweet spot, that balance between the two, is more than necessary for kids to grow up as happy and as healthy as they can be.