Perform Due Diligence on Computer Activity and Your Child’s Brain Development
In my small city, there are strategically placed billboards portraying the message: “Yikes! Our children average 6 to 7 hours of screen time a day.” These billboards were posted by Saskatchewan in Motion, an organization that educates and promotes 60-90 minutes of physical activity per day. The studies have given some organizations cause for concern, and they are attempting to warn us, however, the issue is not just about obesity.
I limit my kids’ use of the computer for very good reason. I have been reading up on the effects of computer game and video game use and its effect on the brain since my 21-year-old was a preteen. It has been proven that when kids spend certain amounts of time on computer or video games and the like, the active area of their brain shifts away from cognitive thinking, thereby reducing their ability to reason well, among other very important thinking skills.
This should alarm you if your child is ‘always’ on a device. It should alarm you enough for you to choose to educate yourself on this matter in order that you can make your own educated decision on how much to limit screen time for your children. For more information, see this book, Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds–For Better and Worse for a very informative start. The author documents her research very well, with an excellent bibliography to expand reading from.
If you don’t have time for a book, here is a very short article you can read that gives just an idea of what we really should know more about, by Chris Rowan, 10 reasons why handheld devices should be banned for children under the age of 12.
Some Personal Observations
I have intentionally spent time observing my children when I allow them to have too much screen time, these are only my own personal observations, they may or may not be the same sort of reactions your see in your children. I have seen it in other children, as well:
- fits of anger while in the game and/or after coming away from gameplay
- inability to reason with parents or siblings
- video game addiction
- decrease in desire to spend one-on-one or family time together that does not include technology
- inability to perform the thinking that is required when doing homework after gameplaying.
It’s not the child’s fault, scientific research has shown that a change takes place in the brain to cause these things and worse to happen in the child. The child has no power over it, it just happens as a result of overexposure, and this is where the parent needs to take informed responsibility. The shame of it is when the parent has not educated themselves about this matter, and assumes that their child is simply being defiant, and punishes or yells at them. The child has absolutely no power over those brain changes. They cannot help it, and this is why limiting screen time is so crucial. Their brain is developing, and we are allowing screen time to mess that up on them.
When I have kept my children strictly off the computer games and video games, I have found that they eventually do find interest in other things, including:
- playing more make-believe or acting, sports and hobbies, and they often end up doing this together
- when they are away from the computer for a long time, they are happier, congenial, they are easier to communicate with,
- they have more control over their anger, and they can work things out in an appropriate manner
- they deal with disappointment more appropriately
- they are more willing to do activities with me and dad, which bonds us and makes our relationships stronger
- they take more interest in the world around them and ask more questions about things in general, so in addition, they learn more
- overall, they are much happier.
Not All Screen Time Exposure is Bad
With all that said, I also believe and want to encourage you that not all computer use is bad. It’s the amount of time, and type of activity is that is being used that makes the difference. Technology is not going to go away, it will continue to grow into everyday life and everyday objects as technology is designed to be more intelligent. At the same time that overuse of video games by kids is obviously not good for their development, ‘learning the technology behind the technology’ will eventually be an asset to many in our children’s generation even while they are still in school.
Keeping this in mind, I began to look for sources that would expose my kids to the other side of video games, the scripting side. For my children, I think that a very limited amount of time per day or week will be beneficial for them, especially if the activity requires thought and planning, not mindless gaming. I aim for about 1 hour or less per day, and 1 hour per day on the weekends. I have set passwords and parental controls to help me to moderate this, because I am not always able to sit beside them at the computer.
There are a number of computer programming books that I thought would be beneficial for me to sit with my kids at the computer with, and I found one book particularly interesting, and to be a very good start for my daughter. It is entitled, Super Scratch Programming Adventure, by the LEAD Project, with the foreword by Professor Mitchell Resnick, Director, MIT Scratch Team, MIT Media Lab, see below.
Click here to visit the Scratch website at MIT
Scratch uses colorful ‘building blocks’ of code (you don’t see the code) to help a child to ‘build’ a script which they can test themselves as they go along. This helps them to see their progress and piece their own games together. It’s actually not just games, either. To the child, this is seemingly a game in itself, and it keeps them learning. You can follow the online instructions, or your can use a book. A more recent edition has been published than the one we used.
My daughter ‘the Jazz’, warmed up to going through a few chapters with me on the MIT Scratchy site, and she learned it quite rapidly. She completed 3 simple mini games so far. Even though they are games, and albeit, they are extremely simple, the important thing to me as a parent is that she has begun to learn about scripting, and the importance of order in scripting. She spent more time creating it than she did playing it. She encountered a problem during one of the projects in the book, and I just gently instructed her to go back over every building block to double check to see if every thing was as exactly in the order as it showed her in the book (which is full of pictures, so very easy for a child and parent to follow). I could see where the problem was, but I wanted her to learn the skill of backtracking to find where something went wrong, and then to fix it. This was a great opportunity for that, and to her it was fun, not work. She found the error, fixed it, her program worked the way it was intended to, and she experienced the gratification of solving a problem realizing that she could do it. The best part was, she and I were actively participating in this together. The next time something goes wrong in her life, she will know how to back track, find the problem, and fix whatever it is that is not right.
My son ‘the Izz’, prefers only to play games and use social media on the computer and on the Wii U, so he has not warmed up to the idea of sitting with me and learning how to program yet. I bought a book geared to older youth to work on with him. In time, I think he might.
Though they are learning how to create video games, they are still learning other valuable skills, like planning, troubleshooting, following directions, mapping, math skills and terms, to name just a few. For more information on Scratch and the benefits of using it, visit the Scratch Parent’s Page, where you can also see Professor Mitchel Resnick’s short video talk.
The Izz and the Jazz of it all
As parents of children whom we all want to see excel at something, it would be most beneficial to learn how their brains develop. We are being responsible when we limit their exposure to things that are dangerous and hinder their brain development, like excessive screen time, or screen time at too early an age. To see our children succeed in life and surpass our own achievements, we need to do our own due diligence, and parent according to our findings for their benefit, not ours. Some exposure to technology is important, however not all technology is healthy, and no exposure is healthy when there has been too much of it. Our one-on-one time and the limitations we set and enforce for our children will give us long-term rewards. Limitations are a gift to our children even though they may not be comfortable or convenient.