Having provided psychotherapy services for children and families since 2001, I have had the opportunity to observe how technology has creeped into the lives of children and families to the point it often eclipses the much-needed experiences of 3-dimensional play.I recently published an article called 7 Ways for Helping Children & Teens Step Away From Screens. I do believe that technology contributes tremendously to our lives and provides children and adults many opportunities for growth, learning, and positive development. There have been amazing advances in the area of digital play and digital learning. I’m not here to knock that whatsoever. I do believe, however, we have gotten off-balance since the pandemic and that we must find balance.
That article I wrote that is cited above and one particular Facebook post I placed on my timeline in early April linking to a recent meta-analysis that the Association for Play Therapy sent out to all its members regarding concerning data about screen time and potential effects on children’s development has caused a stir within the community of therapists who practice play therapy with child and family clients. I think it’s urgently important that 1) we not over-react with alarm at this point 2) we need to pay close attention to what we are seeing anecdotally AND what the research shows with careful examination of the methodology of those studies 3) we need to be watching and leaning into the new research that is being conducted post-pandemic-lock-downs.
While many screen activities and video games appear “3D” they are actually 2-dimensional.
A truly 3-dimensional experience is when we are able to not only perceive dimensions of height, weight and depth with our visual sense but also utilize the ability to interact and explore the three dimensions through touch. There is a sensory experience deficit with digital play and as I dig into the research that exists currently and more to come which I will be directly involved with, I am standing on my firm belief that the developing brains of children NEED true 3-dimensional play with a wide variety of sensory experiences including play in nature.
There is NEW research being done following the widely observed effects of the pandemic lock-downs and school-closings related to time spent on screens. Thankfully, current researchers are looking closely at the nature of the digital content children are looking at on their devices. These researchers are considering the environmental variables also including levels of parent-interaction as well as social and economic factors. These new research studies are considering benefits of screens and the risks and potential harm to overall health and wellbeing.
There is a particular longitudinal study by Sheri Madigan, PhD at University of Calgary, published in 2019 worth looking at. In this study 2,441 mothers and children. This study concluded that when young chlldren between 24 months and 36 months spent more time on screens, it was observed that those children showed lower performance on behavioral, cognitive and social development screening at 36 months (JAMA Pediatrics, Vol. 173, No. 3, 2019).
There have been numerous studies demonstrating that very young children absorb new information from people they are with face-to-face, in person much more effectively than with the same person introducing the same information through a screen. Children need more 3-dimensional play and less screen time.
When screen time mixes with sleep deficit, studies have indicated children between 8 and 11 years experienced increased levels of impulsivity (Pediatrics, Vol. 144, No. 3, 2019). Granted, this and similar study designs offer correlative data and not causal but until we have time to establish whether or not it is a causal relationship between screens and adverse symptomology, it’s important to use common sense.
Children need more 3-dimensional play and less screen time.
Children need face-to-face interaction and touch from loving caregivers.
Children need opportunity to engage with ALL their senses.
Children need varying degrees of natural light every day.
Children need to play in nature.
Children need to explore and play with truly 3 dimensional toys and objects.
Virtual reality play and advanced video games are not the same as in-vivo, 3-dimensional play experiences.
Meeting with someone on Zoom is NOT the same as meeting with someone in the same room, in person.
Digital play should not replace true 3-dimensional play and, in my opinion, it should be limited with more face-to-face interaction, three-dimensional games, time outdoors in nature.
While digital play served a valuable and important purpose for necessary tele-health during the pandemic and is an excellent adjunct to natural 3-dimensional play, and while it will ALWAYS have a place and has noted benefits in some cases, I can not get behind child and family therapists using digital play in place of in-vivo, face-to-face playful interaction when face-to-face, true 3-dimensional play is available.
I believe strongly that the research will come out to show that so much time on screens is not just a correlation to mental and social health decline in children and adolescents but is a cause. I believe there are MANY variables to be considered and quality as well as quantity of time on screens is key. If it turns out the research proves me wrong, I’ll be the first to publish my error in hypothesis.
Meanwhile, let’s encourage families to have face-to-face, playful interaction and time in nature together. I’m willing to bet everything that this will support better mental health and closer family connections in most cases.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). What do we really know about kids and screens? Monitor on Psychology. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/cover-kids-screens
Dunleavy, B. P. (2022, March 16). Study: Kids who spend more time on screens exhibit mental, behavior problems. UPI. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://www.upi.com/Health_News/2022/03/16/screen-time-children-behavior-problems-study/5711647437774/?fbclid=IwAR3kwnqkqIPV8LBF4zTc0X2J4TY-ptZ6sFnXZxuNykgQu3ou0z8ybAKRVHI
Guerrero, M. D., Barnes, J. D., Walsh, J. J., Chaput, J.-P., Tremblay, M. S., & Goldfield, G. S. (2019). 24-hour movement behaviors and impulsivity. Pediatrics, 144(3). https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2019-0187
Sheri Madigan, P. D. (2019, March 1). Association between Screen Time and Child Development. JAMA Pediatrics. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/2722666