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What Every Long Islander Should Know: April 4, 2012

Screen-Free Week for Kids Is April 30 – May 6

What does a $4.4 billion software company have in common with a not-for-profit dedicated to early childhood? They’re both concerned about the time children are spending watching TV. And, they’re doing something about it.

CA Technologies, the Islandia-based software giant, and the Early Years Institute in Plainview are joining thousands of businesses, schools, cultural and community organizations nationwide in sponsoring the second annual Screen-Free Week, running April 30 to May 6.

What’s wrong with kids watching TV, playing video games, and surfing the Internet? Plenty.

First, kids spend way too much time glued to their screens. Children ages 2-6 average four hours a day; older kids more than seven. More screen time leads to decline in school performance, especially reading and comprehension skills. Today kids are six times more likely on a typical day to play a video game than to ride a bike.

Those displaced activities are critical in building kids’ physical, mental, and social skills. Research shows that children who spend more time outdoors have longer attention spans than those who consume more TV and video games. And that sedentary viewing—along with all the junk food commercials—greatly increases kids’ risk of obesity.

Most grave are the risks to young children, whose brain growth in the first years of life depends on the quality of their early experiences. Kids need lots of personal interaction. Passive entertainment doesn’t cut it.

That is why the American Academy of Pediatrics says that children under the age of 2 should not be watching TV at all. Yet by three months, four out of ten infants are viewing regularly.

Electronics have become the path of least resistance, for kids and their parents. We need to recognize the toll it is taking and start reclaiming some of that screen time for other activities.

Shutting off the screens for a week is a great way to push ourselves into breaking out. Let kids rediscover the pleasure of riding a bike, playing catch, and jumping rope. For many kids, it won’t be rediscovery at all. You’d be amazed how many kids today don’t even know how to play hopscotch. Much less how to fly a kite.

For indoors at night, experts are big on drawing and coloring. (A recent study compared 4-year-olds who watched SpongeBob for nine minutes with kids who spent the time drawing with crayons. Following the activities, the kids were given a series of tests of executive function; the SpongeBob watchers did significantly worse.) Card games, board games, and party games provide the personal interaction that is just what the pediatrician ordered for social development.

When the week is up, families can keep from getting back in their rut by setting up new guidelines, such as limiting screen use to certain days or times, turning sets off during meals, and designating a family time devoted to play.

Changing settled habits isn’t easy. But a screen-free week could be just the push we need to get kids making healthier use of their time.

Nancy Rauch Douzinas is president of the Rauch Foundation, a family foundation that supports innovative programs centered on children, the environment, and regional leadership. For more information visit www.rauchfoundation.org. Rauch Foundation is a supporter of the Early Years Institute.