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Fire Up Your Engines: Screen-Free Week Starts April 29th

Giant Bubbles for Health. Photo by Harald Bischoff

Giant Bubbles for Health. Photo by Harald Bischoff

Screen-Free Week (April 29–May 5, 2013) gets a lot of flak, not to mention wolf-crying from some parties. Is it a slippery slope towards the denial of digital citizenship if we suggest kids should spend less time on computers, tablets, and e-readers?

There are many good arguments for children to be educated in technology and that schools train kids to be good digital citizens. Technology, screens, media—it’s part of our landscape now, and equipping our kids for survival means giving them that skill set. However, “advergaming,” dopamine-induced calm, and using ipads to fill kids’ downtime doesn’t hold any benefit for them (perhaps, it does, though, to overstressed parents and caregivers). Daydreaming, running around, and real-life play has a developmentally functional role.

Turning off our phones, ipads, gaming devices, and televisions for a week—filling the downtime with uptime instead of screen time, is a way to model connectedness for kids. The other kind of connectedness.

Is Screen-Free week a haven for Luddites and anti-technology, granola-crunching, bread-baking, wooden-toy-pushers? Well, I may be a card-carrying member of the last three of those groups, but I’ve also been networked and tweeting for a good long while. I’m never going back, but I am vigilant about screen-time in my household.SFW-logo-with-2013-date-and-website

This TEDxRainer talk by Dr. Dimitri Christakis is a good introduction to research on how TV and video exposure affect the development of attention skills in children. His lab found that the more cognitive stimulation kids received by age 3 (reading, museum visits, singing to kids), the better their ability to pay attention at age 7. TV and video had a correspondingly negative effect on later attention skills. For every hour of TV watched per day before age 3, there was a 10 percent negative difference in attentional skills at age 7.

Need more reasons to consider going screen-free and talking your school, household, or significant other into joining you? Here’s an excerpt from the Institute of Medicine‘s Early Childhood Obesity Prevention Policy:

Major federal government initiatives have concluded that screen time is related to weight outcomes, and to adequacy of physical activity, but do not limit their definition of screen time to media that contains food advertising. The CDC’s Task Force on Community Preventive Services recommends behavioral interventions aimed at reducing screen time based on “sufficient evidence of effectiveness for reducing measured screen time and improving weight-related outcomes”. They define screen time as “time spent watching TV, videotapes, or DVDs; playing video or computer games; and surfing the internet.” In identifying research gaps, they point out that important research issues remain, including that “additional research is needed to identify how screen time affects health outcomes”. One of their research questions is “What is the mechanism for screen time being associated with weight-related outcomes?” (Community Guide, 2010).

Healthy People 2020 positions screen time as a direct competitor with adequate physical activity in children from birth to 12th grade. Key physical activity objectives recommended by Healthy People 2020 (HHS, 2010) include: increase the proportion of children aged 0 to 2 years who view no television or videos on an average week day; increase the proportion of children and adolescents aged 2 through 12th grade who view television, videos, or play video games for less than 2 hours a day; and increase the proportion of children and adolescents aged 2 years to 12th grade who use a computer or play computer games outside of school (or nonschool work) for less than 2 hours a day.

The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics)(2001) recommends limiting children’s total media time to no more than 1 to 2 hours of quality programming per day and discouraging television viewing for children younger than 2 years of age. Yet, a recent study suggests that more than a third of health care providers fail to discuss television guidelines with parents (Spivack et al., 2010).

Although the committee thought it was reasonable to assume that the relationship between screen time and obesity found among 2 to 5 year olds is likely to be similar in the birth to 2 age group, there was insufficient evidence about this relationship for the committee to make an obesity prevention recommendation for the younger age group. The committee notes, however, that there is evidence unrelated to obesity (e.g., about cognitive development) that has led others to raise concerns about any screen time in this age group. Thus the committee believes that discouraging screen time in this age group may be important for other reasons, as noted by AAP (2001).

Full document here: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13124.

You can find a slew of suggestions for Screen-Free Week organizing and activities at screenfreeweek.org. Consider a granola-making party for your neighborhood gang of rascals (then tweet about it the following week).

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