Children Are Harmed by Too Much Screen Time, Not Enough Outdoor Play

CC BY 2.0. Brad Flickinger -- A child on an iPad is a familiar sight

A group of experts in the UK wants a special Ministry of Childhood created to protect children's wellbeing, if parents won't.

A screen-based lifestyle is harming children’s health and wellbeing, according to a group of adult experts. In a public letter to The Guardian, a group of 40 educationalists, psychologists, and authors has called on the British government to take action to protect children from the “toxic nature” of modern childhood. The letter is directed toward the United Kingdom, but the same is happening in the United States and Canada.

These days, childhood is defined by excessive screen time, lack of unstructured outdoor play time, a highly competitive education system, and unrelenting commercialization. These factors have significant, documented negative effects on children and young adults, compromising their mental and physical health and their ability to become healthy, well-educated, well-functioning adults down the road.

And yet, little is being done about it. Parents and educators express concern frequently, but that concern has not translated into any meaningful widespread shifts that protect children. As the letter-writers point out, policymaking over the past decade has been “half-hearted, short-termist, and disjointedly ineffective.”

“If children are to develop the self-regulation and emotional resilience required to thrive in modern technological culture, they need unhurried engagement with caring adults and plenty of self-directed outdoor play, especially during their early years (0-7).”

The writers urge the UK government to take action: first, by implementing a special, well-funded kindergarten stage for children ages 3 to 7 (when public school begins in the UK), whose focus would be on social and emotional development and outdoor play. Second, there should be consistent national guidelines for children’s use of screen-based technologies up to age 12.

In addition, the group would like to see the creation of a new cabinet-level minister for children, “whose department audits all government policies for their impact on children’s health and wellbeing.”

One of the signatories is Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood. She says that, aside from basic material needs, all children need in order to survive and thrive is love and play:

“But consumer culture has encouraged adults to confuse both of these with stuff you can buy in the shops. We’ve also become obsessed with trying to teach kids everything they need to know. But you can’t teach things like self-regulation and resilience – they have to develop, through personal experience.”

What about the parents? Regulation would be unnecessary if parents were drawing the necessary boundaries to ensure their children’s wellbeing. The problem, I suspect, is that it’s more convenient to hand over an iPad than take a kid outside for a walk. Also, as I heard stated yesterday in a radio interview on CBC, parents are reluctant even to take away their kids’ devices at bedtime because they don’t want to be held to the same standard.

Abuse in any other form would be promptly condemned, and yet, when it takes the form of hours of indoor iPad play, it has become culturally acceptable to inflict this on children. I applaud the letter-writers for calling attention to this serious issue and hope that the government does take note, as well as many parents.