Recently, I stopped by a fast food place to grab a quick meal on a break from work. It was one of those places with a large indoor playground designed for families and small children. My timing was terrible, during the rush hour of dinner, so I was anxious to get my food and immediately leave because I assumed the noise level would be high. While it was crowded, I was shocked to find the noise level to be very low.
A quick scan across the dining room area revealed families with small children and teenagers who were eating their dinner while playing on phones, ipads, or other electronic devices. The playground had only a handful of kids instead of the normal overcrowded slides and play areas. Even the parents were noticeably quiet as they too seemed entertained by their phones. There was little conversation, eating, or interacting with anyone at the table.
And so, it is, in this new decade. Electronic gaming devices have replaced outdoor and indoor playgrounds. Social media, texting, and email has replaced conversation, discussion, and interaction. And the internet has replaced books, teachers, and learning. Yes, I admit that I might be a bit extreme in this but then again, it does appear that our culture, not just American, but worldwide, is moving in this direction.
It is hard to remember a time without the internet, social media, cell phones, digital watches, or interactive gaming/electronic devices. But it has only been 10 years since the ipad came out and since then, things have drastically changed. Parents allow their babies and young children to use their phones, ipads, and electronic devices to play games and watch videos. Teenagers spend on average 2.5 – 8 hours a day on electronic devices which include gaming devices, phones, and computers. Worse yet, adults are not that far behind, setting an example that is dangerous and unhealthy.
Addictions and disorders. New addictions and disorders are popping up as a result such as electronic addiction, internet addiction, gaming addiction, Tetris effect, and game transfer phenomenon. The first to define an addiction in this area is the World Health Organization which classifies gaming addiction as “a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour, which may be online or offline, manifested by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.” The Tetris effect or game transfer phenomenon is what happens when a person has been playing a game so long that when they walk away, the still feel as if they are playing the game. The results can be hallucinations, delusions, or hypnagogic imagery.
The problem. Because most of these electronic devices are new, there are no longitudinal studies that show the efficacy or the dysfunction of these devices. There are only short-term studies with small populations. Yet some early studies do show that children under 18 months who use electronic devices score lower on vocabulary and developmental markers. In addition, it is important to note that children already diagnosed with ADD/ADHD are uniquely susceptible to becoming prematurely addicted to interactive media such as gaming devices. More studies need to be done with nearly every disorder; however, this is the only one with any research yet. Overall, there is a need for additional studies done by sources that do not benefit financially from the gaming industry.
Guidelines for each age. Fortunately, some organizations such as the World Heal Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association, and the American Academy of Ophthalmology have come up with some guidelines for electronic usage. Here they are:
- From birth to 18 months, it is recommended across all these groups that children have no contact with any electronic devices except to communicate via applications such as Skype or FaceTime.
- From 18 months to 5 years, it is recommended that only one hour per day be utilized on an electronic device. It is imperative that any electronic games be monitored by parents and have a learning or developmental component. During this age group, it is important that the child engages in imaginative play (not electronically based) so they develop creative skills which will be needed throughout their life.
- From 6 years older, there should be restrictions placed on electronic devices such as no game playing on school nights, only one hour per day, 2.5 hours per day on weekends, and only age-appropriate games. Ratings should be monitored by parents and followed.
- Ophthalmologists recommend following the 20-20-20 rule. After 20 minutes on an electronic device, look away for 20 seconds, at least 20 feet away. This reduces eye strain and allows the eyes to rejuvenate. Over the past 5 years, there has been a dramatic increase in nearsightedness which most attribute to the increase in electronic device usage.
- Parents and adults need to model good electronic device usage and limit the amount of social media, texting, or gaming. It is hard to set guidelines for children when parents are guilty of the same offenses.
While it is unlikely that the trend towards using indoor playgrounds instead of electronic devices will subside, awareness of the potential impact of electronic devices on brain development, language formation, coordination (large and small motor skills), and critical thinking needs to be examined. Until then, use with caution.