PBS Special “Web Junkie” on the Impact of Screen Time on Children

Posted on January 10, 2016 at 2:02 pm

The New York Times reports that “Web Junkie,” a special to be shown January 11, 2016 on PBS, has some disturbing data for parents about the impact of screen time on children.

Excessive use of computer games among young people in China appears to be taking an alarming turn and may have particular relevance for American parents whose children spend many hours a day focused on electronic screens. The documentary “Web Junkie,” to be shown next Monday on PBS, highlights the tragic effects on teenagers who become hooked on video games, playing for dozens of hours at a time often without breaks to eat, sleep or even use the bathroom. Many come to view the real world as fake.

Chinese doctors consider this phenomenon a clinical disorder and have established rehabilitation centers where afflicted youngsters are confined for months of sometimes draconian therapy, completely isolated from all media, the effectiveness of which remains to be demonstrated.

This is consistent with the findings in Sherry Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. When I spoke to her last fall, she said,

There is an amazing statistic that there has been a 40 percent decline in all the ways we know how to measure empathy among college students in the past 20 years and most of it in the past 10 years. That’s just an alarming number. And another fascinating experiment is that if you leave college students alone and just ask them to sit without a device and without a book for six minutes they will administer electric shocks to themselves rather than just sit quietly with their own thoughts. So there are two parallel developments: incapacity to emphasize and a lack of capacity for solitude.

I think these things go together because both of them are what you would expect if from the very youngest stages we give people a screen to go to at the moment they feel the tiniest boredom. And that’s what’s happening. There are screens for baby bouncers. There are screens on potty trainers. There are robots that will read to your child instead of you sitting and talking to your child. So when I first got into this project I was asked to consult by a middle school. It was just a regular middle school and their teachers were saying that the students were not behaving for example the way 12-year olds should behave on the playground. They were behaving more like seven and eight year olds. That is to say they were being cruel to each other and excluding each other and didn’t seem to be able to put themselves in the place of other children. They couldn’t seem to be able to imagine what other children felt like which of course is the signal accomplishment of empathy.

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