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Zorba Paster: Rethinking kids and screen time

Shut off the TV, you’ll go blind.” That’s what my mom used to say. Every time I was overdosing on “The Three Stooges” – while eating my Hostess cream-filled cupcake, my home-from-school snack – she would scold me for staring at that box.

Junk food for the eyes and junk food for the tummy. It’s amazing I even got through the ’50s.

Mom was right, and she was wrong. TV can be deadly – not because it will blind you, though, but because it can dull the mind of a growing, developing child.

Children need interaction to learn. Learning is active; TV is passive. Playing with your friends is active; TV is passive. Discussing things at the dinner table is active; TV is passive.

The importance of early childhood education cannot be overemphasized. The more we look at it, the more we realize that the early time in life is critical to brain development. So losing time to TV is bad in itself, and it also fails to promote growth.

In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics took up the baton when it said we should limit children to two hours maximum of TV time a day. Early TV watching can displace other important developmental activities such as playing with other children.

Some studies have shown that too much TV might be associated with attention-deficit disorder, sleep disturbances and poor teenage decision-making. So in 2011, the pediatrics group again recommended limiting TV and also expanded that to include limiting screen time – which meant all computer screens, too.

At the time, however, all of the apprehension about computers was based on passive forms of technology, before the widespread introduction of touch-screen formats. And a few years ago, I agreed with them when they said screen time was just like TV time – bad for the growing mind.

But now I’ve come to think maybe this is wrong. Maybe all screen time is not the same. What about touch screens?

They’re interactive. We can read on them. There is junk on them, of course, but there are good things, too.

Are touch screens different? Should we be encouraging our children, not discouraging them, to take these up at an early age?

A study of about 100 parents of children aged 1 to 3 years were asked whether they let their kids use a touch screen and, if so, for how long and what activities. They quickly discovered that these children could open and close a screen, scroll through photos, interact with icons, etc. And most of the parents let their children use the technology for a mere 15 minutes a day.

Studies have shown that 2-year-olds can swipe, lock, unlock and actively search for material on screens from tablets to smart phones. And this interaction may be just like other forms of play, when it comes with parent involvement that we know is important to development.

Perhaps touch screens, tablet play, may be a useful part of our children’s development. Maybe, just maybe, it’s an important part of their knowledge base for this millennium.

What are the downsides? Content, for sure. If you simply use your tablet as a portable media player, then it’s no different than a TV. How long you let your child use it also is a factor – if it’s just an electronic baby sitter, it’s not good.

And then there is the fact that some game programs are inappropriate, just like some movies and TV shows are. We need a standard; we don’t have one yet, but it will come.

My spin: Fifteen minutes a day with a tablet, in an interactive format, with your young toddler may be good for their developing brain as long as you interact with them just like you would with other forms of play.

The attentive parent, who isn’t looking at their “smart” phone, is the important part of this equation. Smartphones can mean dumb parenting.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a physician, professor, author and broadcast journalist. He hosts a radio program at 3 p.m. Sundays on WBFO-FM 88.7; email him at