Marcia Segelstein has covered family issues for over 20 years as a producer for CBS News and as a columnist. She has written for FoxNews.com, “First Things,” “World Magazine,” and “Touchstone.” She is a Senior Editor for “SALVO” magazine.
Growing up in a modest suburban neighborhood on a block which collectively housed over one hundred kids (we counted), my siblings and I were never at a loss for finding ways to have fun. Most of the time (when we weren’t in school), we were outside playing with whoever happened to be around -- riding our bikes up and down the sidewalks, horsing around on swing sets in various backyards, playing games like hide-and-seek, making piles of leaves to jump in from garage roofs and, of course, building snow forts (it was Buffalo, after all!).
Everyone’s experience of childhood fun is different, but I’m guessing that for most people reading this, it involved interacting with other kids in one way or another. That’s not the case for many children these days.
Nature Valley Canada interviewed three generations of families about what they did – and do – as children for fun. The company put together the answers of the grandparents, parents and children in a TV commercial intended to promote the outdoors (and granola bars, naturally). It’s striking to watch. (See video above.)
Nature Valley focuses on the fact that “fun” for the children they interviewed involves sitting indoors for hours at a time. The company uses the responses to encourage parents and their kids to experience the great outdoors, to go outside and enjoy the wonders of nature (and to advertise its brand, of course). And that’s a good message. But it’s not what I took away from the interviews with those children.
Their “fun” activities were playing video games, using cell phones and tablets to text and email, and watching videos for hours on end – all solitary pursuits involving screens. In fact, according to surveys by Common Sense Media, preschool-age kids spend an average of 2.5 hours a day on screens. For tweens the number rises to 4.5 hours, and teens typically spend seven hours a day in front of screens.
Can that really be good for kids?
The American College of Pediatricians advises parents that excessive exposure to screens (cell phones, computers, video game consoles, tablets), especially at early ages, is associated with a variety of issues including lower academic performance, sleep problems, obesity, behavior problems and depression. “Time spent with ‘screen use’ must be taken from other more potentially beneficial activities of the day – personal ‘face-to-face’ communication and interaction with family and friends, outdoor play (with its associated benefits of creativity, problem-solving and exercise), reading, homework, doing chores and sleeping.” They urge parents to limit the amount of time children spend with screens.
Psychologist Jean Twenge is the author of IGEN: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us. In a piece for The Atlantic called “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” Twenge writes that there is “compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives – and making them seriously unhappy.” Based on her research, what most kids in the generation she calls iGen (those born between 1995 and 2012) do for fun doesn’t make for happiness. Quite the opposite.
Twenge cites a survey called Monitoring the Future, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which polls teens about their happiness levels, their social interactions, social media use and their onscreen time. The results are painfully clear, she reports. Teens who spend more time on screens are more likely to be unhappy, and vice versa. According to Twenge, there is a correlation between time spent online and mental health problems, specifically depression. Suicide risk factors for teens rose significantly when they spent two or more hours a day online. Social media – which is supposed to connect people – often has the opposite effect, leaving kids lonely and isolated instead. “…[W]hen teens spend more time on smartphones and less time on in-person social interactions, loneliness is more common. So is depression,” Twenge writes. Her best advice for a happy adolescence? “Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something – anything that does not involve a screen.”
Parents can start by setting a good example, limiting their own screen time, especially when they’re with their children. The American College of Pediatricians suggests that parents consider “unplugging” the whole family periodically – no TV, no tablets, no computers, no phones. Encourage screen-free time not only as a family, but when kids get together with other kids. And by all means go outside and take some hikes. Bring some friends along and don’t forget to pack those granola bars.