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Nina Shapiro M.D.

When Screen Time Is Actually a Good Thing

New research shows that screen time has a place to relieve anxiety

Soon after the notion of handheld technology came to be, rising concerns about children being driven to distraction from the mesmerizing lights, sounds, and images followed. The general principal was to keep kids away, especially young ones, as long as possible

But the American Academy of Pediatrics changed the guidelines in October of 2016, softening its stance on how much screen time (“digital media”) is okay. For the most part, the new guidelines put the onus on the parents and caregivers to decide on a family media plan that takes into account the health, education, and entertainment needs of each child as well as the whole family.

As a surgeon who operates on children, I also need to care for the adults who care for my young patients. Much of this includes relieving parental anxiety, as kids are so tuned in to the stress of their parents. But the patient comes first, and the goal is to relieve the child's stress, with the hopes that the parent's stress will be relieved as well.

Life is full of stressful situations, but few are more stressful than the moments before surgery, especially for children. We as pediatric surgeons, nurses, and anesthesiologists have tried many techniques, including administering an oral liquid similar to valium (for the children-- parents need to bring their own!) to relax a child before being brought to the operating room; bringing a parent back to the operating room with the child, to help the child go off to sleep; distracting the childwith toys or games; or employing the surprise maneuver of a quick shot that contains anesthesia. All have been minimally helpful. Parental presence in the operating room has become a mainstay, but often we caregivers end up consoling the parent, not the child.

I’ll never forget the first week the iPad came out. A child had it in the preoperative area, calmly pushing his finger across the screen to bake fake cookies as he waited with his mom before his scheduled surgery. He was calm. So was his mom. As the handheld device technology progressed, so did interest in how this may impact children during some of the most stressful situations on the family– coming for surgery.

The studies that followed were fascinating. Not only did children have less anxiety going in to surgery, they had less post-operative anxiety as well. In fact, using a handheld device actively (playing a game or creating something) is more effective than passively watching, as it gives a child a sense of control over a given event. This sense of control, combined with the distraction of the non-medically related task of playing a game on a screen, is a major source of anxiety relief. And here’s the kicker: such a task is better than valium in reducing anxiety.

That’s right, what so many of us dread is actually true, but this time it’s a good thing: your kid’s iPad is better than a drug. And to kick it more: it’s better at reducing anxiety than presence of a parent. Something dreaded when casually mentioning that your kid’s iPad is the new babysitter—in some situations, it’s better than a parent. And who said humans are being replaced?