When to Worry About Your Kids' Online Habits

Kids Online

WHEN TO WORRY

The more hours teenagers spend using a computer or watching TV, the weaker their emotional bonds with their parents, reports a study of more than 3,000 adolescents published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. On the other hand, teens who spent more time reading and doing homework reported feeling closer to their moms and dads. "Strong attachment to parents" - a bond of understanding, trust, and affection - "is protective against poor psychological health and participation in risky health behaviors," the study's authors note, so "concern about high levels of screen time is warranted."
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• Screen time can make a kid fat. Kelly Laurson, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology and recreation at Illinois State University, asked more than 700 children to wear pedometers and report how much time they spent watching TV and playing video games. He found that a lack of exercise and a surfeit of screen time each contributed to kids' growing girth. "Kids are more likely to eat when in front of the TV, and TV shows lots of ads for unhealthy foods," says Laurson. "Too much screen use also interferes with sleep. These influences can make kids fatter and less fit, even if they are physically active."

• Researchers at Queen's University in Canada found that youths with the highest level of computer use (more than three to four hours a day) were 50% more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as drinking, smoking, drug use, and unprotected sex than kids with minimal amounts. "More and more advertising has moved to the Web, and these ads are far less regulated than those on TV," says researcher Valerie Carson. "Kids who use computers can be exposed to many examples of dangerous behaviors, which they may then emulate."

If you feel tempted right about now to declare a complete ban on screen time, consider this: Research also suggests that playing video games or visiting social-networking sites like Facebook may produce improvements in certain skills.

WHY YOU SHOULDN'T STRESS OUT

• When your kid is immersed in a game, he or she is actually practicing some very complex - and necessary - skills. In a handful of experiments comparing gamers to non-gamers, scientists have found that frequent players have sharper vision and faster reaction times and that they're better at multitasking and less easily distracted.
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• Though the precise skills honed by a video game may not always transfer to real-world tasks, and video game playing should be done in moderation and not take the place of physical exercise, the psychological habits fostered - determination, resourcefulness - may well carry over into players' everyday lives. And a study by Michigan State University researchers of nearly five hundred 12-year-olds reported that playing video games was associated with creativity in tasks such as generating stories.

• Screen time can foster connection and closeness with peers. Larry Rosen, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us, found that teenagers who are more active on Facebook and other social-networking sites display more "virtual empathy" - they are more likely to express support and encouragement. "Behind the safety of the screen, teenagers - especially boys - are more willing to share their feelings, to take social risks," Rosen notes. "They are practicing emotional life on the screen, and getting better at it."


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