Parents must now avoid a massive, multibilliondollar trap set for their children’s brains via electronic media, Vancouver Island’s top public health doctor says.
Dr. Richard Stanwick, Island Health chief medical health officer and a pediatrician, said television, video games, computer programs and the Internet amount to a multibillion-dollar industry.
“We are talking about super big business,” he said.
“In terms of what parents are up against, this is really quite significant.”
Stanwick was renewing calls for parents to limit their children’s screen time to one or two hours per day. For kids under the age of two, any screen exposure is discouraged.
“Screen time” refers to the entire arsenal of electronic media: TV, computers, videos and video games, tablets and cellphones.
Stanwick is not alone. His call echoes a public stand taken in 2011 by the Canadian Paediatric Society. “Less is best when it comes to screen time,” the society said on its website Caring for Kids. “Too much TV can affect your child’s sleep, cause behavioural problems and leaves less time for active play.”
Stanwick said new medical, brain-imaging studies show the importance of interaction with other people to a child’s brain development. Merely talking to a child, even infants who can’t yet speak, is enormously important.
“The brain is this amazing organ,” he said. “It depends on human interaction.”
“A screen is not a substitute,” Stanwick said. “It certainly doesn’t foster the brain development and stimulate all its different developmental centres.”
Doctors break down children’s development down to three stages: in the womb, childhood and teenage years.
At each stage, medical studies have revealed that children’s brains react and change according to social stimuli. Babies even show recognition of songs they could only have heard before birth when their mothers sang them.
Later, in the early and later childhood years, any lost opportunities for brain growth and development are lost forever.
During teenage years, the brain lays down neural pathways and networks. Many are permanent patterns that will determine how a person uses talents and skills later in life.
“And it’s during all those very vulnerable periods that kids are being exposed to things, whether it’s chemicals or screen time,” Stanwick said.
He drew a direct link between increased screen time and the current obesity epidemic.
“Screen time can basically be equated to fat time,” Stanwick said. “Just moving your thumbs is not associated with a particularly active, healthy lifestyle.
“We are living with this banquet of high-calorie, fast food and it’s coupled with ever lower energy expenditures.”
Doctors now regard screen time as addictive, Stanwick said. Heavy media and Internet users even experience physical withdrawal symptoms when parted from their screens.
Screen-dependent people are treated using 12-step programs borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous and other modification programs.
“There is now no question that we are seeing a recognized dependency, like a gambling addiction,” Stanwick said.
“And we know if [the dependencies] start in the teen years, they are going to be more powerful and difficult to manage than if they start in later years,” he said.
Stanwick sympathizes with modern parents. Society now faces a vast amount of offerings online and on TV.
“But this is the part where we say, ‘Nobody ever said it was going to be easy to be a parent,’ ” Stanwick said.
“You have to spend time with your kids and not only watch what they watch but monitor it and discuss it with them.”
To learn more about the Canadian Paediatric Society and its positions on TV and screen time, go to caringforkids.cps.ca and search for screen time.