Did you know that children aged 8 to 10 are tech-bound for almost eight hours a day. Those hours bump up to more than 11 per day as those children enter their teenage years. Taken altogether that means on average our children are spending more time involved with screens than they are in school. The only activity they’re actually found to be spending more time on is sleeping!
Screen time is certainly not all evil, and it alone is not going to destroy your child’s life. It can be a great tool for enhancing your children’s interests. In a way it’s much like sugar – you can allow some, but you don’t want your children getting too high a dose. Your role is to recognise when they’re getting too much and to set rules that will restrict their screen-time diet.
By “screen-time” I mean time spent with basically everything that has a screen – smart phones, tablets, laptops, video game consoles, portable video game systems, PCs, and of course the TV.
Negative effects of excessive screen-time
One huge negative is that children’s attention-spans are being considerably reduced by excessive use of screens. Video-games especially, can reinforce the notion of near-immediate gratification, reducing the amount of time children are willing to spend earning satisfaction from real-life endeavours. Obviously, this can have a big negative impact on their ability and desire to focus on learning, reading, and homework.
Secondly, children can have trouble developing balanced relationships with real-world people. It’s sort of like building up your immune system – one has to be exposed to bacteria and the like in order to make oneself stronger. The same goes for relationships – one has to be exposed to the highs and lows, how to react and work with different personality types in order to be productive with them. Screen-time relationships are relatively sterile and mostly without consequences, meaning children don’t have as much chance to grow into being someone who can relate to other flesh-and-blood human beings. This lack of real-world interaction can result in unstable moods, difficulties with impulse control, lack of self-confidence, and difficulties regulating relationships with others.
Children and young people are also losing the ability to hold real conversations. Twitter and emojis can actually make for some clever use of text, but they’re not the arena in which one learns how to read body language or where one gets to really expand on a topic. Because they’re having fewer in-depth conversations with real people (real people including you parents and teachers) that leads to the question of who is forming their value system?
Another significant negative is the link between excessive screen-time and childhood obesity.
Finally, screen-time can also cause some serious sleep disturbances. When children (or adults, for that matter) engage in a video game or even email too close to bed-time our brains rev up in response to the associated stresses. Our brains switch on the cortisol pumps (cortisol is a stress hormone made by our adrenal glands) and it basically acts the same as caffeine, keeping us awake. Just the light from screens can keep us awake, tricking our brain into creating less melatonin which is a hormone that brings about sleep.
The positives of screen time, yes there are some…
First off, we should remind ourselves that children of the internet age as a whole are not comparably surlier or socially inactive than we were as kids. In fact, most of us acted much like our children do, just with different outlets – namely the TV and ye olde fashioned land-line phone. Remember your parents yelling at you to get off the phone and come down to dinner?
So before we go on, we should remind ourselves that all screen use is not bad, and the internet is not a monster. There are multiple benefits to your children having access to the web. The internet is a great place for homework and project research, and it can be a great way to get a first exposure to foreign cultures. Also, if you expect your children to get jobs out in the real world someday they’re going to need to know how to use the internet. There’s no way around that.
Some video games out there are exercise-based, reading a child’s whole body as the controller as they dance along to a song or flail around in an action based game. Video games also teach the body co-ordination and fine motor skills.
How to deal with excessive screen-time
All these positives being said, there is still an obvious problem with children and teens (and adults for that matter) spending too much time in front of a screen. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that two-thirds of teenagers stated that their parents hadn’t set any rules at all regarding screen-time. This is not a reason for a freak-out. Is your child or teen excitable or moody? Well that’s not because of screen-time (or not only because of screen-time).
Here are some tips you can try. The earlier you start implementing these rules, the sooner your child will become used to them. (And starting these rules with a child will be much easier than with a teenager).
Set a good example.
Get off your own screens Mum and Dad. Do something fun and exciting and irresistible to the kids. Take them outside for playtime (children should be getting at least 60 minutes of activity a day), get the whole family outside. If your getting bored of the same playground, venture out a little further, find your five favourites, and rotate them, take a picnic, tennis rackets, anything!
Be the parent.
You should model behaviour that you want your children to follow. If your children constantly see you on your phone checking Facebook updates, don’t expect them to behave any differently. In most homes where children are overusing screens so are their parents, monitor the amount of time you are on screens and make sure you are setting a good example. And remember you’re the one in charge of your child, not other parents, and certainly not other children. If your child’s best friend is allowed to watch clips of horrific real world violence this does not in any way mean you’re obliged to allow your child to do the same. You set the rules for your home and what is or isn’t appropriate.
Set screen-time limits.
Many parents struggle with setting clear boundaries on screen time. Having time limits can really help, not only you, but it also helps children learn and respond to limit-setting which is an essential life skill. I’d suggest having some alternative activities in mind though unless you want to hear sighs for hours on end. It may be helpful to have a conversation with your children, to let them know there will soon be rules about screens, meaning they will get less time, tell them why excessive screen time is not good for them. Involve your children in conversation and in making decisions, negotiating with them appropriately can actually help in getting them to cooperate in limiting their use of screen time. Also, get them to brainstorm a list of activities which they can choose from when the rules kick in.
Have screen free time periods.
Set up scheduled time every day when no screens are to be used (including parents), this might be from after school until bedtime, or in the mornings. Many families find it helpful to have very clear boundaries, abolishing all screens during the week, apart from say one TV show after homework. Allowing more screen time at weekends shouldn’t mean a free reign, instead let your children know exactly how long they have, maybe split it into two sessions over the course of the day, then get them doing something else.
Study time means study time.
When they’re online doing school work that’s all they should be doing. So no other screens should be allowed. Organise their work area so you are nearby and can see what is going on. To be able to learn effectively from doing homework, children need to be able to focus on it. They can’t focus very well if they are clicking back and forth from homework to Snapchat to homework to Facebook. Nor can they focus if they are distracted by the TV, so whether it’s them watching, or you, turn it off until the homework is done. If you wanted to, you could turn homework time into quiet family time where everyone sits and reads (if they have no homework), or does quiet activity.
Keep the computer in an open area.
Your little people aren’t going to be looking up naughty things if the computer is in the family room. this will also help you monitor your children’s social media behaviour. Having the computer in the main room will also make sure that your kids are sleeping at night instead of sneaking in some more screen-time (no TVs in the bedrooms!). if they are old enough to have phones of their own, ask them leave their phones on the dining room table at bedtime.
Turn off the background screens.
Don’t leave TVs etc. on in the background at dinner time or when you want your children to focus on something else, it can be deadly for study-time concentration. A flickering screen will always be a distraction, even if the sound is down and at the other side of the room. If your children get used to growing up with the noise or distraction of a TV that is on all the time, they will be more likely to grow up developing similar habits. Let your children know what they’ll be watching tonight, give them a choice of a few things if you like, when the program is over, turn the TV off and encourage other kinds of activities.
No screens at meal time.
Turn your TV off, and put aside all tablets and phones during dinner, that includes your own phones mum and dad. Getting your kids to talk has a host of benefits, research has repeatedly shown that families who have dinner and conversation together regularly, without the distraction of phones, are closer, more engaged in each others lives, and have better relationships. Help your children learn to listen, read body language, how to hold a conversation, let them vent their problems to you (giving you the opportunity to be the one to help solve these problems instead of internet strangers. Get your children talking by asking interesting questions like:
If you could have any super power, what would it be and why?
Imagine you had a time machine, what would you do with it?
Say three most interesting things about you/your family?
Say three things that make you feel really happy?
What do you want to be when you grow up? Why?
What do you feel proud of?
What would your favourite day be like?
If you feel you need more guidance about dealing with your child’s screen habits please don’t hesitate to get in touch