Fewer screens and more time for play

The recent “Screen Addiction Is Taking a Toll on Children” post on The New York Times Well blog received a lot of attention. Readers were vocal about the negative impact technology can have on children and adolescents. The reported statistics were certainly cause for alarm.

Hand on computer keyboard.The piece starts with a reference to Web Junkie, a documentary examining Internet addiction in China. The movie showcases teenagers hooked on video games, playing for dozens of hours at a time often without breaks to eat, sleep or even use the bathroom. Web Junkie is scheduled to air on PBS this Monday and NYT reporter Jane Brody attests that many in the documentary come to view the world as fake.

The documentary suggests this is a clinical disorder and purports draconian therapy isolated from all screens to cure the disorder. This got me thinking. Away from screens might be a good start, but what environment might be most helpful while they are not watching a screen? Outdoors? There are so many benefits, over and above being physically away from the temptation of the device.

Brody’s blog post states that parents seem to have few rules about use of media by children and adolescents. Let’s look at the negative affects of screens on children and see how free play could help counter and reverse some of the alarming trends.

  • First let’s encourage parents to limit screen time and incorporate more time for unstructured free play into their children’s lives.
  • According to Web Junkie, heavy use of electronic media can have significant negative effects on children’s behavior, health and school performance. There’s a wealth of research that shows positive outcomes from play on children’s behavior physical fitness and academic scores.
  • When screen time infringes on reading and studying, schoolwork can suffer. It’s been proven that children who have more playtime do better on standardized tests and overall achieve a higher level of academic performance.
  • Also affecting school work is a decrease in the amount of sleep children are getting. Children need sleep, and they are getting less than they have in the past as they stay awake using their device.
  • Technology is a poor substitute for personal interaction. The playground is one of the last sacred spaces where children make the rules and engage in real-world interaction that improves their overall social skills. In Free to Learn, developmental psychologist Peter Gray argues that our children, if free to pursue their own interests through play, will not only learn all they need to know, but will do so with energy and passion. “To foster children who will thrive in today’s constantly changing world, we must entrust them to steer their own learning and development. Drawing on evidence from anthropology, psychology, and history, Gray demonstrates that free play is the primary means by which children learn to control their lives, solve problems, get along with peers, and become emotionally resilient.”
  • Negative physical outcomes can also result from too much screen time (pain in wrists, fingers and narrowed blood vessels in the eyes). Play only provides positive outcomes. Bodies get stronger and imaginations can run wild.


The Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit advocacy group, complained that, “Compared to the 1970s, children now spend 50 percent less time in unstructured outdoor activities.”

Perhaps we need to explore outdoor, child-directed play as a remedy to counter the negative implications of too much screen time. ‘Everything in moderation’ rings true here. If we put limits on screen time and encourage more time for outdoor unstructured free play than the future may look a bit brighter.

We know outdoor play has tremendous positive impact to child development. We know that children have more self-esteem, more ability to solve problems when they control the direction, the duration and the number of players involved in their play.

Lets play! (outdoors, in nature, with our friends!)

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