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As studies suggest excess screen time can damage kids' brains, Colorado talks how much is too much

Parents, educators, doctors speak to issue
Posted at 9:40 PM, Dec 10, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-11 12:07:47-05

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DENVER – Chances are your children have a Christmas wish list that includes some type of smartphone, iPad or video game. Before you fill that request, you may want to consider a ground-breaking new study from the National Institute of Health.

The study suggests screens are physically changing the brains of adolescents. Most experts agree that the research is now undeniable: too much screen time can have serious physical and mental health consequences.

Some programmers even admit their apps are designed to get kids hooked. Doctors say that can lead to devastating consequences.

“Because binging in life is not good,” said Dr. Jenna Glover, a child psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “Binging on food, on substances, even on Netflix – if you’re doing it too often, [it] is not a great thing to do.”

Former Google programmer Tristan Harris says the people behind the apps are working hard to get your kids hooked.

“If you didn't know, Snapchat is the No. 1 way that teenagers in the United States communicate," Harris said in a recent Ted Talk.

Harris says phones are like slot machines. The programmers behind the apps are giving your children rewards so they'll come back over and over.

“And because this is profitable, it’s only going to get worse,” Harris said.

“One of the things that happens in the body is we have the release of dopamine – which is a pleasure chemical,” Glover said. “That’s what happens when we are in front of a screen or a text pops up. Dopamine releases. So, we really are potentially opening kids up to moving towards addiction. And in some cases, some kids are not able to go to school anymore because they need very intense residential-type treatment for it.”

Glover says the average kid between eight and 18 years old is now in front of a screen for seven hours a day.

"[That is] far beyond what the recommendations are,” Glover said. “Parents should be scared. One-in-five teens in the United States wakes up regularly in the middle of the night to check their phones."

Glover says families should have tech-free zones in their homes.

“I strongly encourage the bedroom,” Glover said. “It’s a place where technology does not need to be.”

Mother of three Jarae Fulton was starting to worry about her children.

"He would play all day every day if I would let him,” Fulton said. She's talking about the game Fortnite and her 11-year-old son. But for her, it didn't stop there. Her six-year-old was headed down the same path.

“He was attention-seeking. He's always saying inappropriate things. He gets his mouth washed out with soap probably three times a week,” Fulton said.

Fulton calls it a never-ending battle. She says she and her husband came to a revelation about five weeks ago. They limited their 11-year-old to just 12 hours a week with Fortnite and other devices. And they took them away from their six-year-old entirely.

"After about a week of everything being gone, he goes, 'Mom, when am I not grounded anymore?' And I go, 'Buddy, this is your new reality,'" Fulton said.

That new reality has been a game-changer.

“He's a different kid now,” Fulton said. “He was lying. He's not lying anymore. Nothing else changed, except for the fact that we took away all the screens."

That brings us to our school administrator.

"Technology is nothing new in education,” said Adrienne Haythorn, principal of Northern Colorado Christian Academy (NCCA). “Technology giants are always trying to get technology into the classroom."

NCCA has managed to keep most screens out of its classrooms.

"Our philosophy is really based on the fact that teachers are hired to teach," Haythorn said. “Some of our teachers may have a laptop, they may have an iPad in there, but it's really limited to their use and their discretion when to use it."

NCCA’s test scores are perhaps an indication of how its model is working. All grades levels here score in the 70th percentile or higher on the Iowa Assessments. The third-graders are in the 90th percentile.

"Putting them in front of an iPad or tablet in the classroom does not equal better test scores," Haythorn said.

But are those kids less proficient with technology?

“We talk a lot about media use in the classroom,” said Dr. Lisa Hagan, a professor at Metro State University of Denver. Hagan teaches future teachers how to teach our children.

“By the time kids get to high school, they should be able to use [Microsoft] Word, Excel, PowerPoint,” Hagan said.

Yet, Hagan says even kids who grow up with very little technology are still proficient.

 “I had a student with an interesting story,” Hagan said. “[The student] said, ‘Raised by hippies in a van, they didn’t have any technology at all growing up.’ Yet when she got to college, it’s no problem for her.”

Hagan says schools like NCCA are helping, not hindering the effort. 

“I really don’t think that it’s going to hinder them in any way,” Hagan said.

“Technology, by design, is made to make things easier,” Haythorn said. “Therefore, it is easy.”

It's that expert advice that motivates Coonan. She only allows her kids an hour of screen time a day.

“I look at it like this – I want my kids to be able to function in society,” Coonan said. “I want them to have relationships with people outside of devices. I want them to be able to have one-on-one conversations. You’re going to have to be able to articulate your thoughts and interact with people.”

Coonan says she’s also typically in the room with her children when they’re using screens.

“[That’s] because of everything they can be exposed to,” Coonan said. “They can access anything. So, I’m very protective because I know things can pop-up on screens.”

Glover says it happens all the time. Kids are exposed to things they shouldn’t be seeing for their age.

“Programmers have discovered the easiest way to capture someone’s attention,” Glover said. “It’s to make everything just slightly more extreme. And so, the next suggestion after the current video they’re watching on YouTube will always be just a step more extreme. And soon, it’s pornography and violence.”

Glover says parents must constantly be monitoring this.

“Ultimately, they are going to see things you don’t want them to see. And rather than knowing how the internet is designed, they’re going to blame themselves for seeing it,” Glover said. “And that could lead to really dangerous behaviors. It’s more likely that they’re going to shut down and try to hide that from their parents. There could be feelings of guilt and shame. Instead, if a parent is in the room, it’s a great time to reassure them that there are scary things out there and they can always talk to you about it.”

So, how do you navigate all this as a parent?

Most experts agree the easiest thing to do is to limit screen time.

Glover says kids under two should have no screen time at all. Kids 2 to 7 years old should have no more than one hour a day, including TV. And kids ages 8-18 should have no more than two hours a day.

"This matters, holistically, for kids’ health," Glover said.