Are Children Under Eight 'Screen Addicts'?

Are America's children spending too much time in front of TV, computer and smartphone screens? According to a recent study, the answer is yes, more time than ever before. And while some apps and TV shows might be geared toward building skills in young children, some experts suggest that too much screen time is simply not good.

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Monkey See, Monkey Do

There's little doubt that many children are simply mimicking what they see their parents doing.

'Parents who check their e-mail three times on the way to the bus stop are constantly modeling that behavior, so it's only natural the kids want to use mobile devices too,' James Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization supplying information about technology and media to parents and children, told The New York Times in October 2011.

One mother told the Times that her 19-month-old daughter learned how to unlock her smartphone solely through observation. 'And I've seen her use the bottom of her sweater to rub the screen clean, because she knows that's something Mommy does,' she added.

Alarming Statistics

So how much time is too much time spent playing video games and navigating apps?

AVG, the manufacturer of Internet security software, recently conducted a study that found many children between the ages of two and five can't tie their shoes but can work a smartphone app. Other research shows that nearly 60% of children in that age group can play a computer game, while just less than half can ride a bike.

The statistics are not any less alarming when it comes to TV screens. Many children are spending more than twice the amount of time in front of the TV than listening to their parents read them a book. And more than 30% of children aged two and under have a television in their room, up from 19% in 2005.

Apps for Infants

Some argue that the benefits of learning-oriented apps and video games are not apparent until after the age of eight. Still, Apple iTunes alone offers more than 700 apps for children, some of which are meant for infants. Many of these apps have claims to develop fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination.

But despite these apparent benefits, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) still cautions against screen time for children under the age of two due to the interference it presents between parent and child interaction. This, the AAP says, is detrimental to language development.

And it's more than just language. Some say that video games that replicate real-life actions, such as building blocks, cannot and should not replace the real thing. 'This is not how the real world works,' Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Hospital, told in October. 'And babies do need to learn how the real world works.'

Other Dangers of Too Much Screen Time

But as parents become more and more addicted to technology themselves, it seems they will increasingly put their children in front of it. To do so, some reports say, can be risky.

Why? Well, privacy invasion and exposure to questionable content are very real problems facing children who spend more and more time on computers and Web apps. And while the Children's Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA) is meant to guard against the collection of personal information from online users under the age of 13, that doesn't mean the law doesn't get broken.

In October, the Federal Trade Commission reported that W3 Innovations, an app development company, paid a $50,000 fine for violating COPPA. Over 30,000 e-mail addresses and other information relating to underage users were collected by the company.

So are there any easy answers for getting kids away from screens? Not likely. As Vicky Rideout, the author of Common Sense Media's report on children's screen time, told The New York Times: 'Parents like their media, and it's really tough to resist the lure of putting your kid in front of something that purports to be educational and will keep them occupied.'

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