Practical Screen Time Advice (Pedcast)

Topic introduction

Dr. Paul Smolen here, also known as Doc Smo, coming at you with another edition of Portable Practical Pediatrics. From the womb to the workplace, if it involves children, we talk about it here. Boy, you can find some fascinating stuff in a stogy pediatric journal. The other day I was reading my copy of Pediatrics and I came across an article that I thought you might be interested to hear about and may possibly be very meaningful to your parenting. The article talked about the brain activation that goes on in a child’s brain when they are stimulated by storytelling or being reading to. This is an important subject in today’s electronic rich environment where exposure to screens has begun to substitute for the storytelling/reading experiences of the past. So, let’s explore that subject a little today, shall we?

Musical Introduction

Limiting Screen Time is Tough

In many respects, I’m glad I’m not a parent of young children these days. I watch the daily struggle that parents have limiting screens with their children. Even the most upset, misbehaving, out of control child can be almost instantly tamed with a little smart phone or screen showing cartoons.  They love these devices and parents often use them as bribery for behavior that a parent seeks from their child, as a reward for certain childhood behaviors, or simply to distract a bored annoying child. I see this everyday in my office–Johnny or Janie nags their parents to distraction and finally Mom or Dad gives in and calms him or her with a smartphone and an animated video game or movie.  Instant peace and quiet. An amazing thing but good for the child? I’m not so sure. Longtime followers of will remember the post I did about a study that discovered that an iPad, given to a child just before they are to be taken away from their parents to go into an operating room, is as effective at relieving the child’s anxiety as the potent sedative called Versed.


I think we can all agree that giving Versed to a child on a regular basis to relieve their anxiety or boredom is not in the child’s best interest.  Well, if giving Versed regularly to a child, to relieve a child’s anxiety isn’t good for them,is frequent use of screen time with the same goal any better? Could today’s use of screens be the “Soma”, the negation of negative feelings that George Orwell warned us about in his novel, 1984?

Why Limit Your Child’s Screen Exposure?

You are probably wondering what’s so wrong with children having screen time?  Well, emerging evidence says, you know that article in that stogy medical journal that I just referred to, leads to the conclusion that traditional storytelling, where a child uses their own imagination to conjure images in their brain and decode complex language, stimulates a child’s brain in a uniquely verbal manner. In the study referenced in the journal Pediatrics, researchers did “active MRI scans” to measure brain cortex activity when young children 3-5 years of age were read to. The researchers showed unique brain activation from storytelling and reading to children. The implication is that active imaginary verbal activities (reading to children when they are under 5 years of age) developed the child’s ability to create “mental imagery and narrative comprehension”. Anybody surprised by that? I certainly am not. While the authors did not overtly compare screen time brain activation with traditional reading time, my guess is that it is very different.


We know that reading to children is good for their brains but the word is still out on screen time. Common sense tells me that another benefit of less pacifying with screens for a child is forced to learn to be more patient without the screen to fill the void of time. Learning to be patient, without demanding to be distracted, is actually a skill that children need to learn. Psychologist, John Rosemond, believes that on world standards, children around the globe generally stop interrupting their parents while they are speaking by their fourth birthday, a skill that requires great patience by a young child. See if this is what you observe in contemporary American children!  If we use Dr. Rosemond’s standard of normal patience, I think you will see what I am talking about; American children are not very patient. Maybe being a little bored without a screen, while the attention is on your brother or sister in a pediatrician’s office is something that children need to master.

A Practical Solution

But we live in the times that we live in. Telling parents to just not give in isn’t practical advice or likely to ever happen. My guess is, with that advice, the exact opposite will end up occurring.  A parent is more likely to give in as soon as the battle heats up since total abstinence is a fantasy in today’s screen rich reality.  So where is the balance? How do parents today achieve the goals of limiting their children’s time with virtual, passive devices like screens and at the same time, encourage their children to develop an active imagination and less need for high stimulus, passive entertainment? Well, here is Doc Smo’s practical solution to this dilemma.  I think parents should adopt what I call the Zero Sum Solution. By that I mean that in children over two years of age, too young to read on their own, need to have at least an equal amount of time being read to as they get with screens. For older children who are good readers, screen time is earned by reading for an amount of time equal to their screen exposure. Using this strategy, a child gets to relax with a screen but gets an equal amount of time stimulating the parts of their brain that use mental imagery and more active verbal engagement. I think the Zero Sum Solution comes as close as possible to allowing your child to get the relaxation of a screen but not miss out on the benefits of traditional reading or storytelling. Oh, and by the way, I do occasionally see children who love reading as much as most children love screens and these book lovers; they seem to always succeed in school.  Just an observation.


Well, thanks for joining me today. If you enjoy hearing about what is new in child health and are looking for practical solutions to many parenting dilemmas, take a moment and subscribe to at my website, or on my podcast on iTunes, “Portable Practical Pediatrics”. If you do, you just may the best informed parent in the room at your next PTA meeting.  This is your host, Doc Smo, hoping you find a way to restrain the influence of screens on your child’s brain. Until next time.


Smo notes:

  1. Journal article referenced in Pedcast

2. Psychologist John Rosemond’s developmental milestones for children,5698420&hl=en