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Susan Linn's picture

The much acclaimed Nintendo 3DS promises endless hours of screen-time pleasure—and a load of trouble for parents and children. It provides 3D gaming with no bothersome glasses. Reviews glowingly describe a three dimensional experience that is more real and more compelling than ever before—instead of objects appearing to come at you, the new Nintendo technology creates a more realistic sense of depth.

According to the New York Times, “Just about every child in America who likes video games is going to want a 3DS; the clamor will reach a fever pitch this weekend and will continue straight through the summer and into the holiday season.” The Times goes on to describe how the hand-held charmer is perfect for school bus rides. What it doesn’t say is that children are going to be bombarded with marketing for the device, which comes at the hefty price of $249.99 and health warnings for children under seven.

The last thing kids need is technology that makes screen time more enticing than it already is. Children already spend an alarming amount of time with screens—more than 32 hours a week for preschoolers. And we know it’s not good for them. Childhood obesity, poor school performance, attention issues, and sleep disturbances are all linked to excessive time with screens. And screen time is habituating. The more you have, the more you want.

Every nifty, new, portable, heavily-advertised screen emerging on the market increases children’s access and desire, which manifests into a childhood characterized by all screens all the time—less active play, less creative play, less face-to-face interaction, less time with nature (and so on), and more exposure to all forms of advertising, including product integration which is increasing in video games. So what’s a parent to do?

One obvious option is not to buy in—to resist being sucked into the “my child needs the latest gadget in order to be happy” rut. That’s easy to say and harder for lots of parents to do. The social pressures start young. One mom told me that written on an invitation her eight year old recently received to a pajama party was “bring your DS.” He didn’t have one. The assumption was that he, and every other invitee, did. To her credit, she didn’t rush out to buy one. And yes, he still had a good time.

If marketing to children were regulated (and I believe it should be), and kids weren’t subject to sophisticated ad campaigns convincing them that screens are essential to their happiness, it would be easier to “just say ‘no’” to the latest media fad. But, at the moment, the burden is completely and totally on parents. Most parents I talked to are troubled by excessive screen time, and the money they’re shelling out to support it, but it’s rare that they feel on top if it. They’re asking for help—and they need it.

We certainly can’t legislate how much screen time families allow their children. And, short of a consumer boycott—which is laughably beyond unlikely—we can’t stop Nintendo and other companies from manufacturing amazing electronic screens. But advocates, the public health community, educators, government officials, and anyone who cares about children can speak out about the need for limits on screen time and help parents come up with viable alternatives. The American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended no screen time for children under two and no more than two hours per day for older kids. More recently, the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, the Centers for Disease Control and other public health organizations are also recommending limits both at home and in child care settings.

More than seventy of these groups have endorsed Screen-Free Week 2011—the national celebration where children and families escape entertainment screen media for a week and have fun exploring the rest of the world. My organization, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, is the new home of Screen-Free Week (which used to be called “TV-Turn-off”). And communities around the country are organizing screen-free activities—like picnics, game nights, dinners—on the theory that it’s easier, and more fun, to take a break from screens together rather than alone. For CCFC, celebrating Screen-Free Week is not an end in itself—it’s a springboard for changing behaviors and lifestyles.

The Nintendo 3DS is not the be-all and end-all for screen technology, which is only going to become more evolved, more enticing, more accessible, and probably more affordable. Meanwhile, screen time for children is a major public health and social problem that is only just now beginning to be recognized. And kids aren’t going to set limits themselves. Reducing screen time can’t be a national law, but it can, and should, become a national value.

Cross posted from the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood blog.

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