“The key is to teach them how to be safe with technology, because ultimately, we want our children to be in charge of technology, rather than feeling technology is in charge of them.” – Elaine Halligan
Fortunately, or unfortunately, we human beings have become a digital species. We’re surrounded by screens, from big sized televisions and digitised advertisement hoardings to phones, tablets and laptops around us 24*7. And whether we like it or not, we all suffer from the many challenges excessive screen time poses to our health, as well as the challenges of consciously limiting screen time for ourselves so we can be present in the real world too.
Unfortunately, a bigger threat of this technology and abundance of screens falls onto young minds more than ever. We’re now even accustomed to seeing a 1 year old child operate a mobile or a tablet better than grandparents, or sometimes, even us!
To think of it, of course it makes sense, since our world is only going to be more and more digitised in the near future and the next generation needs to be acquainted with it. But the problem with screens is, it can easily take over and leave the user helpless when it comes to over use. And this fact is quite stressful, to say the least.
So let’s review what experts have to say about how screen time affects young minds, how much of it they should be allowed, and how to get your message across the right way.
How exactly does screen time affect children?
As Dr. Jennifer Cross, developmental and behavioral pediatrics expert reports, a landmark National Institutes of Health (NIH) study that began in 2018 indicates that children who spent more than two hours a day on screen-time activities scored lower on language and thinking tests, and some children with more than seven hours a day of screen time experienced thinning of the brain’s cortex, the area of the brain related to critical thinking and reasoning.
“We’re not sure what this data means yet, but what we can hypothesize is that screens could inhibit certain aspects of a child’s development by narrowing their focus of interest and limiting their other means of exploration and learning,”
Harmful effects of screen time at a young age, or excessively, according to various studies
- Less learning from screens for children under 2 as compared to learning from another human being.
- Lowered language development, reading skills and attention span.
- Suppression of melatonin (sleep hormone) when used late at night, and hence delayed sleep.
Recommended screen time age wise according to Health Matters:
18 months and younger: Fully avoid screen time, except for video chatting with friends and family.
18-24 months: Limited screen time with only high quality educational children shows (while watching together)
2-5 years: Quality children content limited to 1 hour per day (while watching together)
6-12 years: Limits on screen time making sure it doesn’t come in the way of social gatherings, sleep, physical exercise and play time.
12 years and older: Discipline them by having designated screen free areas in the home where they (and you) aren’t allowed to use screens at all.
Plausible solutions to limit screen time in an overly digitised world
- Watch together
If screen time is unavoidable, the best thing you can do is watch everything they watch together, making it a fun activity to do together. Discuss what you watch like you would when you watch movies with a friend. Sing along to songs in the show even after screen time ends. Moreover, talk about the lessons given in the show after the show is over so information from the educational program is retained.
- Choose what you watch carefully and wisely
Like everything else in popular media, there are some good shows for children, and some mostly useless if not harmful. So make sure you research well and choose a show that will educate while it entertains your child. And make sure there’s content that gives them good examples of how to behave in society and with their peers.
- Introduce good screen-free habits that they can carry forward
As WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says “Achieving health for all means doing what is best for health right from the beginning of people’s lives. Early childhood is a period of rapid development and a time when family lifestyle patterns can be adapted to boost health gains.” So as parents and caregivers, it’s important to introduce healthy screen habits as well in this digital age. Make space for screen-free habits such as not using screens when travelling or outdoors in nature. Consider having curfew timings that means screens off for everyone, including adults. Make sure they have enough hobbies, activities and such going on in the real world, so they don’t feel like being stuck to the screens all the time.
- Lead by example
Like we all know, children love to copy us adults. While sometimes it can be cute, it can also be devastating if you don’t practice healthy habits yourself. So make sure you practise healthy screen habits if that’s something you want for your child. Avoid using your screens mindlessly. Show them good use of screens such as learning something new, working or staying updated with the world’s happenings, instead of mindless scrolling on social media or such.
- Find things to do together
As Dr Juana Willumsen, WHO focal point for childhood obesity and physical activity says,
“What we really need to do is bring back play for children. This is about making the shift from sedentary time to playtime, while protecting sleep.”
So make sure it’s not all about learning or making strict guidelines for screen time without having some fun, entertaining things to do around the house, and if possible, together. Consider investing in kids educational toys, science toys, wooden toys and other toys for kids that promote learning in fun ways. You could also invest in hobbies and other activities they could indulge in and carry forward with them into adulthood.