Screen time is a term most parents are familiar with. It’s a term that parents have been bombarded with since 2010. Are you letting your child have too much screen time? Are you providing enough access to digital media to your child? Does the size of the screen have an effect on development? What about the quality of media? These are some of the titles of screen time articles targeted at parents.
Based on various studies and advice by medical associations such as the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP), we can safely say that screen time does, in fact, affect the development of children.
The AAP recommends that children below 2 only have access to very little screen time (presumably about 10-15 minutes) per day and that children 2 years and older should be limited to no more than 1 hour of screen time per day.
Common pitfalls while following screen time rules
Many parents try to keep screen time below an hour a day, there are also some parents that don’t allow any screen time at all. These rules tend to shift sooner or later for many reasons. Sometimes parents are overworked and decide using a little screen time to keep their children engaged as they complete their work or rest couldn’t hurt, this quickly becomes a regular thing because of how engaged children are with these devices. Another common instance is when children find their parents’ old tablets or phones and quickly become large consumers of digital media, parents might even notice that their children are playing with their old devices but the ease with which they learned to use these devices tends to make parents believe that it couldn’t possibly be harmful to them.
The most common instance of when rules about screen time are entirely ignored is when a second child is born in the family and the parents are simply unable to give as much attention to the first child as they used to, this is often compensated with granting the child more screen time to keep themselves engaged. And finally, screen time rules shift as children grow older because older children invariably spend more times looking at screens.
Issues caused by excessive or early screen time for children
Slowed language development is a primary cause for concern with toddlers. A study by the AAP found that children around 18 months old (the sample test group included over a 1000 children with a median age of 18.4 months) experience a 49% increased risk of expressive speech delay for every 30 minutes of screen time. Expressive speech delay is a broad diagnosis which means that a child has trouble with language in some form such as learning words, spellings, or even putting words together in a sentence. The study did not find any link between screen time and some other communication delays such as body language or gestures. However, the expressive speech delay is a great enough concern by itself and should prompt parents to strictly limit screen time in children under 2 years of age.
Increased weight is another effect linked to increased screen time. Multiple studies have found a connection between how many hours a day a child watches a screen (television, computers, or phones) and their increase in weight. Some studies have suggested that since watching a screen is generally an activity that is done with no physical movement it leads to reduced physical activity and consequently increased weight. One study found that in toddlers each hour of screen time increased their body mass index.
Reduced sleep and disturbed sleep patterns have been linked to using screens and the content watched on these screens. Melatonin levels are affected by the blue light emitted by screens which don’t allow children to fall asleep, this is why keeping any sort of screen even a small one in a child’s room is discouraged. Certain studies have also linked watching violent content to increased disturbed sleep patterns in children.
Emotional and behavioural development are also hindered by increased screen time according to research papers. In toddlers, even when watching content made for toddlers, an increased display of aggression, disobedience, and destruction was observed. The argument that since very young children cannot transfer virtual lessons to real-world application (such as why they don’t realize that puppets on television aren’t real) is another strong argument for why children shouldn’t be exposed to much digital media at a young age.
Actions that parents can take to make sure digital media only helps their kids and doesn’t harm them
Children, especially very young children, learn more by watching their parents than they do by listening to what they’re told. Therefore, if parents are unable to separate themselves from their devices or instinctively turn to their devices every time a notification alert is heard then their children will also tend to do the same. A child that watches their parent cling to their devices will also not take any screen time rules seriously as they’ve seen how much time the parents themselves spend looking at screens.
For young children and toddlers, the huge market of educational apps and programs means choosing the right one requires the parent to test the app to know whether it truly is beneficial and educational for their child. Reading should also include the parent as children learn words and language by interacting with their parents and not directly from books or even apps. So if you’re using an app or e-book make sure to partake in its usage and read along and interact with your child. An e-book or interactive storybook app by itself will be far less effective than a printed book with parent interaction. This has come to the attention of many children’s app developers who are making apps that engage both the parent and the child.
Use high-quality educational apps and games to keep your child’s screen time productive and engaging. Educational apps have filled up app markets recently so using word-of-mouth or trying it yourself before handing it to your child is advisable since not all apps that are marked as educational actually are educational. Try to use games that improve pattern recognition or word recognition and so forth. Also, try to make them use the skills they’ve obtained through these apps in the real-world such as if you’re in a supermarket and they’ve just played a game that teaches them the names of fruits ask them to identify the fruits around them.
Make sure your children don’t spend hours staring at screens but instead play outside, or with toys that aid development such as building blocks or educational kits. Screen time should never replace social interaction and physical play.
Let your children know that if they break the screen time rules they will face a consequence such as they will lose their device for a certain amount of time or will have reduced screen time on the following days.
Will limiting your child’s screen time make them lag behind their peers when it comes to technology?
We are aware that technology is used for many things and grows more important as each day passes. It is, therefore, important to instil in your child the lesson that technology is a tool used to share knowledge, make work easier, communicate easily, make travelling smoother, and so on. Teach them to never abuse technology and to always use it safely. Guide your children to use technology to make their lives easier by showing them how to use maps to navigate to a location such as a relative’s house or their school, messaging applications to communicate easily, the phone to call people, and more. For toddlers, the use of video calling would be the most recommended use of screen time as even over a screen social interaction is very good for their development.
Children that show an interest in where technology comes from can be nudged to whichever side (software or hardware) they show greater interest in. If they want to know how the applications do what they do guide them towards software applications and games. If they want to about what lays under these screens and powers the device, enrol them in computing workshops or buy them science kits.
Controlling screen time and alternatives that parents can use to screen time
Interact with your children as much as possible each day. Do activities together such as playing sports, games or building something together.
Set up parental controls on all devices that the children have access to. This will make sure that your children do not ever see anything abusive, violent or generally inappropriate.
Make family pacts such as no one will use a device during meals, certain hours before or after dinner or lunch, and after a certain time on weekends. Instead do family tasks, trips or games at these times.
Delaying giving your children their own devices. Even if all the other kids have devices but you are certain that your child isn’t ready yet, don’t give them their own device. Instead, give them one of your devices to use at certain times. It’s far easier to restrict the use of a device you own than a device they own.
Handing your child a device when they throw a tantrum or are frustrated creates a pattern in their minds where they believe that these devices should be used as comforting mechanisms whenever they’re frustrated instead of resolving their frustration themselves. Instead, understand why they’re frustrated and help them overcome it.
Limiting screen time is a struggle that many parents face every day. I hope this article has helped parents come up with a few plans to limit their children’s screen time.
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