Will Technology Make My Kid Fat, Dumb, and Mean?

Debunking the most common media myths and truths with real research and practical advice. By Sierra Filucci
Will Technology Make My Kid Fat, Dumb, and Mean?

Parents have a lot of responsibility. Mainly, keep the kid alive. Next, try to raise a decent human being. And the messages about media and tech start almost from the moment they're born: TV will rot your kid's brain! Video games are evil! Kids don't know how to have conversations anymore! It all boils down to the idea that too much media and tech will ruin your kid -- or make them fat, dumb, and mean. But obviously that's an oversimplification. The truth is more complicated -- and a lot less scary.

Here we break down the scariest media and tech rumors and give you some solid research and simple, no-stress advice.

Rumor: TV rots kids' brains.
Research says
: No credible research exists that says screens cause any sort of damage to the brain. It's pretty clear, though, that having a TV on in the background isn't good for little kids. It's been shown to reduce the amount of time kids play and the quality of that play. It also seems to be related to less parent-child talk and interaction, which can have a negative impact on kids' language development. Television in the bedroom is also a no-no; research shows it affects the quality and amount of sleep kids get, which can affect learning, among other things.

Advice: Turn off the TV unless you're actively watching it. And keep it out of sleeping areas. Play music -- perhaps wordless -- if you want some background noise. And set aside time each day, if possible, to actively play with little kids.

Rumor: Watching TV or playing video games makes kids fat.
Research says
: Some research suggests a connection between watching TV and an increased body mass index. But the numbers seem to point to this being a result of kids being exposed to food advertising, not necessarily being couch potatoes.

Advice: Avoid commercials by using a DVR or choosing videos without ads. Also, teach kids to recognize advertisers' tricks and marketing techniques, so when they see ads, they can evaluate them critically. Make sure kids get exercise every day, either at school or home. If kids can't spend time outdoors, find ways to be physically active indoors (create obstacle courses; do kid "boot camps") and choose active video games or find fun exercise apps or TV shows to enjoy together or for kids to enjoy on their own.

Rumor: Cell phone radiation causes cancer.
Research says
: Lots of studies have been done, and the results are inconclusive. The research community is still investigating, but there is still no indication that cell phones cause cancer in humans.

Advice: Kids don't talk on their phones very much -- they’re more likely to text or use apps -- so even if there were a credible connection between the radio waves emitted from phones and damage to the brain, most kids would be at little risk. If you want to be extra cautious, make sure they aren't sleeping with their phones under their pillows (not a good idea anyway!).

Rumor: Kids use the internet/their phones too much -- they're addicted!
Research says
: While plenty of research has been done to try to figure this out, the results are still pretty inconclusive, especially for kids. Certainly, studies show that kids feel addicted, but whether many are experiencing the symptoms of true addiction -- interference with daily life, needing more to achieve the same feeling -- is still up for debate. Also, no one has defined what "too much" time is.

Advice: Build as much balance into kids' days and weeks as possible. That means aiming for a mix of screen and non-screen time that includes time with family and friends, reading, exercising, chores, outdoor play, and creative time. If kids seem to be suffering in some area -- at school, with friends, with behavior at home -- take a look at her daily and weekly activities and adjust accordingly.

Rumor: Violent video games make kids violent.
Research says
: Heavy exposure to violent media can be a risk factor for violent behavior, according to some -- but not all -- studies. Children who are exposed to multiple risk factors -- including substance abuse, aggression, and conflict at home -- and who consume violent media are more likely to behave aggressively.

Advice: Avoid games that are age-inappropriate, especially ones that combine violence with sex. Make media choices that reflect your family's values; that can mean choosing nonviolent games, limiting the amount of time kids can play certain games, or playing along with kids to help guide them through iffy stuff. Also, as much as possible, limit other risk factors of aggression in kids' lives.

Rumor: Kids don't know how to have face-to-face conversations anymore.
Research says
: Studies on this topic haven't focused on kids yet, but that data is surely on the horizon. What we know says that many older adults think devices harm conversations, but younger adults aren't as bothered. A couple studies have also found that the absence of devices (at summer camps or during one-on-one conversations) can inspire emotional awareness. What that means about the ability to have a conversation is unclear.

Advice: Make sure kids get experience having face-to-face conversations with family members, friends, and others, such as teachers, coaches, or clergy. Teach kids proper etiquette, including not staring at a phone while someone else is talking. Model the behavior you want to see. But also accept that digital communication is here to stay. Embrace it and use it with your kid. And don't criticize kids for using it appropriately, even if it's not your preferred method of communication.

About Sierra Filucci

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Sierra is a journalist with a special interest in media and families. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley, and she's been writing and editing professionally for more... Read more

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Comments (6)

Adult written by Foxograndisto

Maybe not cancer but so many people are getting brain tumours and forced to under go risky life altering surgery. Just a standard sized friends and family group I can count 6 people who have had brain surgery over the last decade. One was my mother. Another my wife. Another maligant and aggressive and the cause of a quick death. 4 of these were in the area of the brain above the ear.. Further more the more you mention this to people the more stories come out. In my opinion the vastly increasing levels electro magnetic radiation are causing tumours, maybe not always cancer, but yes, life threatening tumours. Of course like everything wireless technology is massive economically so this will never be a factor presented to the people.. I experience it's also brain numbing to use wireless technology, especially but not only phone talk which causes me long and lasting headaches, so I avoid using as much as possible and plug devices via Ethernet cable wherever at all possible.
Parent written by Hank S.

Only Face-to-Face direct communications are processed by brains as significant. Kids deceive themselves into thinking they are "communicating" via technology. It's only at the intellectual level and they are failing to build up their emotional layer, which is needed as a successful human being.
Parent written by Hank S.

Cancer takes about 30 ~ 40 years to become noticeable so Cell-Phones are too new to be YET condemned but better to be cautious. Induced voltages increase with frequency and we are now in GigaHertz ranges. Comm companies want to minimize risk so they emphasize irrelevancies, like average power - remember, they are very rich & powerful organizations. We call them Cell-Phones as they imprison people for life.
Adult written by Jack W

I play video games almost as a living, and I am in great shape and have many friends. As usual, CSM fails again.
Adult written by Aditya S.

Honestly, according to me technology is really very helpful for kids! You can play some amazing educational game on your mobile phones and learn various good habits after playing the games!! For example, you can consider this kids game where kids will learn daycare activities with some interesting fun tasks!! Check out here: bit.ly/Puppydaycare
Kid, 12 years old

Glad to see a lot of these are just myths. I use tech a lot and I am only 90 lbs.