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Media overload can hamper kids' learning abilities
By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

A television or computer may be easier to find than a babysitter. In the long run, they may even be cheaper. But they're far from ideal ways to give your children a head start on their education.

Too much screen time could hurt children come school time, says Don Bower, a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension human development specialist.

Bower said the issue for many teachers is “at what cost is a child spending time at a screen instead of playing with friends and exploring outside, activities that are important for a successful school experience.”

Schools focus on teaching children specific subjects. When kids show up at school lacking the basic skills necessary for learning, teachers have a much more challenging task.

"The kids who show up ready to learn usually go on to be more successful students and, in turn, successful adults," Bower said. "Schools do try to address students' deficiencies. But it's when children show up at pre-kindergarten and kindergarten without the building blocks for learning in place that puts them behind."

Bower sees a connection between intense screen time and decreased readiness to learn.

"Kids involved in screen time aren't involved in activities that are more interpersonal and physical," he said.

Television is the No. 1 activity for children ages 6 to 17, according to the Center for Media Education. By mid-adolescence, the average child has watched 15,000 hours of television. That's more time than they've spent with teachers, friends or parents.

"The number of screen time hours continues to increase," Bower said. "The average U.S. child watches 25 or more hours a week. The American Academy of Pediatrics says there should be no screen time for kids under the age of 2 and only one to two hours per week as children get older. There's a huge disconnect between what is healthy and what is actually happening in many homes."

Electronic media isn't necessarily the bad guy, Bower said. “There are many electronic activities that complement and supplement educational learning. I hope parents become better consumers of electronic entertainment so their children can become better users.”

His main concern is unmonitored screen time.

“Parental monitoring of their children’s activities is a strong predictor of kids staying on track,” he said. “That monitoring includes discussion of the amount of time that kids are ‘plugged in’ and regular checking of their online activities.”

When the screen goes off more often, students have a greater chance of developing building blocks for school success: the seven elements research has shown all successful students have in common. Bower gives tips on each to help students hit the ground running when they show up for school.

Sense of curiosity: Children are naturally curious. But with more time in front of an electronic screen, there is less time to feed curiosity.

Imagination: Electronic media doesn't ask for much interaction. Instead of screen time, help your kids play games, make projects and read books.

Ability to focus attention: Reading, art, science and building projects, as well as outings, are all activities that reward your child for paying attention.

Ability to maintain attention: Too much fast-paced media trains children to expect constant sensory stimulation. Avoid extremely fast-paced programs, movies and games, especially when children are very young.

Persistence: Television and computers often offer instant gratification. Too much media affects a child's ability to stick with an activity when things get frustrating.

Language: Talk to your children, read to them and expose them to the wonder of books from their earliest days. Early school success is related to the kind and amount of reading and talking at home.

Inner speech: Most electronic media doesn't engage critical thinking. Encourage your kids to think before they act. The ability to reflect and have a private conversation with ourselves helps us think things through and control our impulses.

"When it comes to success in school, a healthy media diet is just as important as what your child eats," Bower said. "Do your kids a favor and turn off, or limit, the electronic screens."

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.)

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