The world relies heavily on technology and electronic screens are now an integral part of our daily lives. Researchers have long raised concerns about the impact of screen time on both adults and children, and it’s not surprising that many parents aren’t sure about what is best when it comes to their children with technology. While it’s nearly impossible for anyone to avoid screens altogether, it can be a good idea to impose some limits.
The effects of screen time
Studies show that the artificial light and flickering images on a screen can overstimulate certain areas of your children’s brains. This can lead to the following:
- Attention deficit
- Lack of exercise
- Less sleep
- Lower energy levels
- Poor performance in school
- Poor quality sleep
- Strained eyes
- Stress or anxiety
Excessive screen time is connected with a reduction in active play, which is essential for your child’s learning and development. When your child sits in front of a screen, they aren’t exercising or using their critical problem-solving skills as nature intended.
Studies comparing MRI scans of children’s brains have revealed differences between those who use smartphones, tablets and play video games daily versus those who did not. The children who had excess screen time also scored significantly lower on cognitive thinking and language tests.
Similar side effects can be seen in adults, with screen exposure affecting sleep habits, relationships, mood, and fitness.
Recommended screen time
The recent WHO guidelines for children under 5 are based on a combination of reduced screen time and an increase in physical activity.
For children under 1 year old, it is recommended that they:
- Be active several times a day, including 30 minutes of tummy time
- Have no screen time
- Have no more than an hour of restrain in a high chair or pram
For children 1 – 4 years old, it is recommended that they have:
- At least 180 minutes of physical activity a day
- No more than an hour of screen time a day, none if possible
- No more than 1 hour of restrain in a pram or high chair at a stretch
At 5 years and older, a little more screen time may be introduced, but it should still be limited to no more than a few hours of exposure. Doctors generally suggest that the less screen time, the better, from childhood through to adulthood.
How to limit screen time
Limiting screen time can be challenging if your children are used to a free reign over electronic devices. With very young children, it’s easier to impose these guidelines. The best thing to do is to talk to your child about what you’re doing and why. Offer alternative activities that you know they will enjoy.
You can try to:
- Avoid using your own electronic devices excessively in front of your child
- Engage in activities with young children like reading, singing, puzzles and story time
- Encourage outdoor activities like bike rides, walking, and outdoor play
- Have a set time each day for TV, computer or tablet time, so your child knows when they can use them
- Impose a cut-off for all electronics one hour before bed time
- Keep electronics out of sight
- Organise social activities like play dates for your child
Some scientists have suggested that children with existing behavioural issues may be more likely to be put in front of a screen to control their behaviour. This would mean that the behavioural issues and lack of focus exist regardless of screen time, leading to false data in tests. While plausible, research of children and screen habits over an extended period of time has mostly ruled this theory out. There’s much more evidence to suggest it’s the other way around.
The responsibility of others
You can do your best to limit screen exposure in your household, but what about elsewhere? Schools, daycares, and the wider community all need to be on board to make changes. Many schools now require older students to have a tablet or laptop for their studies, but you may wish to restrict their use of this outside of school. If you’re concerned about the amount of screen time your child is getting at school or daycare, have a conversation with their teacher or carer about it.
A healthy childhood
There are plenty of things you can do to ensure your child has a healthy lifestyle. Focus on physical activity, mental stimulation and a balanced diet.
Give your child a fresh, whole diet with lots of lean meat, vegetables, fruit, and healthy fats and carbs. Limit or cut out processed foods and soft drinks and make sure they get plenty of water.
Keep your child focused with activities to improve their cognitive skills. Language exercises, reading and writing are all important for older children. Puzzle books and mind games are a fun way to get them thinking. Young children can play with basic toys like blocks and shape finders.
Walking, running and playing outside are easy ways for your child to get enough exercise. You can also enrol them in a regular class such as swimming, dancing, karate or soccer. Very young children need lots of free play on the floor with toys to encourage mobility.
Long-term screen use
Screens have not been around long enough for us to truly understand the long-term risks of excessive exposure. The safest thing for you and your child is to impose restrictions and encourage other, healthier outlets for their energy. If you have any concerns about your child’s behaviour or learning, you should see your doctor or paediatrician for advice.
Article reviewed by Dr Othello Dave, deputy medical director at Parkway Hospitals
Can Too Much Screen Time Hinder Child Development? (ND) Retrieved 11/7/19 from https://www.webmd.com/parenting/news/20190128/can-too-much-screen-time-hinder-child-development#1
Radcliffe, S. (2018, Oct 2) More Than 2 Hours of Screen Time May Affect Kids Brains. Retrieved 11/7/19 from https://www.healthline.com/health-news/more-than-2-hours-of-screen-time-can-hurt-kids-brains
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To grow up healthy, children need to sit less and play more. (2019, Apr 24) Retrieved 11/7/19 from https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/24-04-2019-to-grow-up-healthy-children-need-to-sit-less-and-play-more