Screen time and how it impacts on children's development:
It’s tough to be a parent of children of school age in these trying times.
Children (as well as teachers and parents) need to rely on screens when they jump to online learning at a moment’s notice and for hours at a time each day. As parents we understand that this is not ideal, but it is often the only option.
Meanwhile, on-demand streaming services offer binge-worthy entertainment, conveniently consumable on practically any screen available. Sometimes it feels like it’s easier to let the kids have their downtime and watch their favourite shows, after all don’t we all do the same at the end of a long day?
Then there’s socialisation, which is skewing more and more towards online platforms. Our children are growing more technologically savvy than we are (if they aren’t already) finding new and endless ways to communicate and play with their friends through the latest social network or PlayStation or mobile game.
We are all bombarded by our screens at all times of the day, they are inextricable from our daily lives and routines. It’s hard to think of a time without them, but most of us have at least not had this sheer level of exposure to screens from such an early stage as our own children have. To them, screens have always been there.
So if they are an irreversible fact of life now, how on earth do we keep our children safe from the negative impact of screens?
First, it is worth defining what ‘screen time’ is. “Screen time is time spent watching television, playing a video game, or using an electronic device with a screen (such as a smartphone or tablet)”.
So are screens always bad for development?
Like most things in life, screen time can be both good and bad. Excessive use can of course negatively impact children, but it is also of great benefit to their development in communication skills, creativity, promoting knowledge and aiding in problem solving. After all, screens have enabled our children to continue their learning, albeit in a different and sometimes challenging way, during the pandemic. It’s hard to imagine how learning would have happened without them.
However, when a student is spending many hours online, whether they are working or watching TV and relaxing, it may mean that their sleep patterns are interrupted, their eye sight could be affected, their concentration span is reduced and lots of sitting around can lead to unnecessary weight gain. I am sure, we have all seen how our children are affected by screen time in varying degrees in our own homes.
What are the recommendations?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children spend an average of seven hours a day using their screens.
The current recommendations from health professionals are:
Ages 2 and under: The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that children under 24 months old not be exposed to screen time at all.
Ages 2–5: For children ages 2 to 5, you should not allow them to have more than an hour of screen time a day.
Ages 6 and older: Manage your children's screen time to what you feel is appropriate. Make sure that the guidelines you put in place do not allow screen time to negatively affect their sleep or well being.
However, according to the AAP, the use of video-calling with children under 2 years old can help create a social connection with relatives who don't live nearby.
The impact of prolonged screen time on a child’s development
Teenagers seem to have the highest amount of screen time, usually more than seven hours a day. It has been shown that adolescents who use devices for long periods of time tend to struggle much more with their mental health than children who only had screen time for an hour or less a day.
In terms of learning ability, the teaching staff at King’s Bangkok have anecdotally seen an improvement in reading and decoding skills, the children have needed to access their curriculum by relying more on reading skills more than ever before. However, handwriting and letter formation have needed more focus since we returned to the classroom, as their use of a pencil diminished during remote learning.
Another positive consequence is thatthe children are very confident using devices and can troubleshoot from a young age; malfunctions of technology, that can leave me in a spin, they can resolve without any anxiety.
What about cyber bullying?
A huge risk for young people and a concern for parents will always be the possibility of their children encountering cyberbullying. UNICEF describes this as ‘bullying with the use of digital technologies. It can take place on social media, messaging platforms, gaming platforms and mobile phones. It is repeated behaviour, aimed at scaring, angering or shaming those who are targeted.’
We take online bullying extremely seriously at King’s and are constantly educating the students from a young age about good online etiquette, together with supporting anyone experiencing negative interactions and encouraging our students to talk to an adult immediately.
How, as a parent, can you safeguard your child from any negative online interaction?:
Watch for changes in your child’s behaviour or mood before or after they’ve been on the screen.
Talk openly about what they are doing on their device, ask who they are talking with and engage with their interests online.
Be available to talk through any concerns they want to share.
Remove devices or switch off the WIFI at nighttime.
Keep screens in shared spaces, rather than behind closed doors.
Consider installing programmes or filters that can block access to inappropriate sites or content.
How to set helpful boundaries around screen time for the whole family
It is a balance my husband and I are daily trying to strike with our children but here are some tips that may help encourage a healthy use of technology at home.
Be a good role model, the children will copy and demand more screen time if they see us using it too much. Remove screens when you eat and turn phones on silent during family time.
Make a family charter with the children, let them set their own boundaries and discuss with them what is sensible in terms of time on a device each day. Hours can roll away when they are on a game or watching Netflix.
Set a curfew: choose a time each day when screen time is off limits. This will help improve their sleep cycles. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health considers an hour before sleep is important for children to be away from a screen, because the light emitted by a screen reduces melatonin levels which help us go to sleep.
Keep the use of a device a reward: If your child does some reading or goes for a swim, offer them screen time as a reward for their good choices.
Keep devices out of bedrooms overnight (including your own if you can, and if you can’t, keep them in a drawer and not next to where you sleep).
Not all screen time is the same, but excessive use of the screen of viewing inappropriate content can be damaging.
Be mindful of recommendations made by experts on time on the screen, according to the age of your child.
Give your children guidelines on safe usage of the internet and keep communicating with them on what they are doing online.
Set a good example and be consistent as a family to role model good use of technology.
Article by Fleur Wells, Primary school teacher