by Ellen Griffin
What does the typical American kid do with his
free time? Eat, sleep and
gaze at a screen. And not necessarily in that order.
Childhood "screen time" -- those hours spent in
front of videos, television
and computers -- now averages up to 6.5 hours a day, cutting into time
exercising, socializing and the ancient art known as reading. With
ever-improving video graphics and speed and continuously expanding topic
areas, screen time soon could edge out dream time, too.
The medium or the message?
Child advocacy groups such as the American
Academy of Pediatrics have waged
a long-standing war on media violence and sexually explicit content. But
increasingly, the technologies themselves are coming under attack.
"Computers pose serious health hazards to
children," says the Alliance for
Children in its report, "Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers and
Children." Children are at risk for repetitive-stress injuries, eyestrain,
social isolation, obesity and other unhealthy consequences of a sedentary
lifestyle, the group says.
Studies that link media to violence and poor
health are stacking up faster
than Tetris tiles. The number of overweight and obese youth has more than
tripled in the past two decades, reports the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services. That includes a whopping 13% in the high-risk obese
category, on a potential collision course with heart disease, high blood
pressure, diabetes, stroke or gallbladder disease in adulthood. Cornell
University researchers found at least 40% of school children are at "risk
serious injury" from computer work stations that foster bad posture, the
Alliance for Children reports. And, the American Academy of Pediatrics
of the more than 3500 research studies on the association between media
violence and violent behavior, all but 18 have shown a definite
In addition to the physical perils of too much
screen, educators and other
experts believe the TV and computer games take children away from the time
that otherwise would be spent on developing their imaginations and social
skills through peer play, socialization and hands-on creativity.
"We believe very strongly that children need to
grow up with healthy rhythms
that are in tune with the natural rhythms of human development," says
Cook, chair of the faculty of the San Francisco Waldorf School. "Things
television interrupt those rhythms."
Waldorf students are discouraged from using
computers and media throughout
elementary school, so they can develop their creativity and remain more
physically active than children who are glued to the tube. Families in the
school agree to restrict TV and computer exposure, making it possible for
children to be shielded from the media until they are physically, mentally
and emotionally old enough to handle them.
"We're not objecting to [TV and video game]
content per se as our number one
issue -- although there are some issues there," Ms. Cook says. The primary
concern of Waldorf educators, says Ms. Cook, is that the media interrupt a
child's "sensory development" -- her ability to listen to a story, engage
creative play, observe nature and so forth.
Instead of screen time, Waldorf students play
creatively among themselves,
nurturing their imaginations and developing creative thinking. "In our
kindergartens, for example, we don't have anything that resembles media,"
Cook says. "You find instead natural materials -- seashells, pieces of
pine cones and cloth."
For parents who feel it's the medium itself
that's the problem, the
decisions are pretty clear-cut: Steer children away from computers and
toward activities that, in the words of the Alliance for Children, "engage
bodies, hands, or hearts in the experiential ways so essential to
The Alliance's time-tested and common-sense
suggestions are for parents to
Close, loving relationships with responsible adults.
Unstructured, make-believe play.
Music, drama, puppetry, dance, painting and other arts.
Handcrafts and other hands-on lessons.
Conversation, story-telling, poetry and books read aloud.
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