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Screens are ubiquitous. They're at the self-checkout in the grocery store, on your car's dashboard, even at the gas station to catch your attention while you're captive at the pump. Then there are the screens we carry everywhere we go: our smartphones, laptops, and tablets.
Children ages 8 to 12 spend an average of four hours and 36 minutes each day on screen media, according to a recent study by Common Sense Media. For children younger than 8, the average was 2 hours and 19 minutes every day. Especially with young children, what are the effects of so much screen time?
Because it's a relatively recent phenomenon, we won't know the long-term consequences until more time has passed. Screen time may replace physical activity and increase a child's risk of obesity. Another concern is that early exposure to digital media may impede communication skills.
"Children need direct communication with humans to acquire language skills," says Catherine Stone, clinical director of the Branford Counseling Center. "Very young children who are spending many hours in front of a screen are losing out on the direct interaction with caregivers that is needed for language acquisition."
Renée McIntyre, a clinical social worker in Madison, agrees.
"It is strongly felt that children develop best in environments with interaction with people, not screens," she says. "There is so much more to communicating than just words. Body language and tone of voice are important factors in understanding each other."
Children are also more likely to become addicted to digital entertainment such as television or video games.
"Children are especially vulnerable to behavioral addiction because they lack the self-control that comes from mastering developmental milestones," McIntyre says. "If it's fun and feels good, children want to keep engaging in this behavior."
Because children lack the ability to self-regulate, that means parents need to step in to ensure that other activities—reading books, even sleeping—aren't excluded.
"Kids—like adults—get lost in video games and the Internet," says Dr. Martin Klein, a clinical psychologist in Branford who published one of the first articles on video game addiction.
Klein points out that video games may also shield kids from learning the consequences of their actions.
"Unlike real life, it is fantasy without any real consequences," he says. "You deal with real emotions, but it is fantasy and does not count."
Social media presents a similar challenge by fulfilling the social drive without teaching real-world social skills.
"In many ways, social media has replaced real social activities," says Klein. "And this is dangerous, developmentally and socially."
Finally, increased screen time is linked with anxiety and depression in teens. One possible reason for this is that a smartphone provides a distraction from everyday annoyances such as waiting in line.
"With access to constant screen time, young people do not have to develop the skill of tolerating minor frustrations," McIntyre explains.
Another possible reason is that screen time is cutting into time that should be spent sleeping.
"The cause [of increased anxiety and depression] might be a decrease in the amount of sleep that teens are getting because of the intense pressures to remain connected via social media," suggests Stone. "Lack of sleep absolutely contributes to emotional and behavioral problems."
Despite the negative consequences, it's unrealistic to expect "iGen" kids to unplug completely from the devices that define their generation. So, what is a reasonable goal?
"The general recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is no, or very limited screen use, for children under the age of two with the exception of video-chatting. Children under two should never use these devices alone," says McIntyre. "The recommended time limitations on digital media use for children two to five years are no more than one hour per day to allow children ample time to engage in other activities important to their health and development.
"It is also recommended that there is no screen time during meals or an hour before bedtime," she added.
With older children, "Electronics should take a back seat to school, homework, one hour of physical activities a day, face-to-face social time, and family time without anyone in the family plugged into a smart device or TV," says Klein.
Basically, make sure your kids unplug from their devices not just to get away from the screen, but to engage in other meaningful activities. Even if they are having a positive experience with digital media, it's replacing real-world activities: reading a book, throwing a ball, playing with the family dog, or climbing a tree. You know, all those things that are essential to being a kid.
Tips for Reducing Screen Time
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents limit screen time for their children. But how can a parent do that for children who have grown up using smartphones and tablets, some even before they could talk?
Set a Curfew
Catherine Stone, clinical director of the Branford Counseling Center, suggests setting a curfew for electronics.
"Keep in mind that parents need to set an example and it will be easier for children and teens to follow the rules if parents set limits on their own screen time," she notes.
To help enforce the curfew, Stone recommends setting up an evening charging station for portable devices—away from where you and your children sleep.
"This will decrease any temptation to get on your phone late at night," she says.
Poor sleep caused by excessive use of electronics has the same effect as any lack of sleep: "a profoundly negative impact on mental health," according to Stone.
Another place to cut down on electronics is at the dinner table. "Have a 'no devices at the table' rule so that there is ample opportunity for direct communication and less of a chance of being interrupted," says Stone.
When children do use devices, make sure they are monitored. They should not be browsing the web unattended.
"Show an interest in what your children are watching and set limits as needed," says Stone.
As your child grows older, it'll become harder to regulate how much time they spend staring at screens. But if they grow up doing other activities as well—going outdoors, exercising, and visiting friends and family—then there's more chance that they'll carry those habits into later life, alongside their smartphones or whatever technology comes next.
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