Screen time is a big question in the modern parenting world. Children today are growing up in a digitally-connected environment and are beginning to access social media before they even enter primary school. Studies have shown that children between the ages of 3 to 5 years old who have had higher exposures to screen, often show poorer expressive language skills and did worse in tests for language processing speed.
But don’t be too hard on yourself. Screen time is almost inevitable as even parents today are part of the generation that uses and relies on technology. And with technology now being used in schools as teaching and learning aids, it becomes a question of “how long”.
Before you decide how much time is appropriate for your child to spend on a smartphone, computer, TV or gaming device, it is good to first understand the effects of screen time. There are studies that show too much screen time can have negative effects on the mind and body. Brain-imaging research shows that bright screens stimulatesthe brain’s pleasure centre. This becomes a real stressor for young children who do not have the coping mechanisms for such high doses of mental stimulation. For older children, studies show that they may lose the ability to stay focused and engaged on tasks. Their passive consumption of online content may also hinder their creative and analytical development.
So for children, it is essential that we help manage their screen usage and prevent them from becoming too dependent on the devices. This calls for us to rewrite the rules for the digital age, starting with BALANCE. Children learn more about technology usage from their parents than from anywhere else: a classic example of monkey see, monkey do. A parent’s screen time habits will shape what children think is acceptable. So if you do not want your child to request for YouTube videos at the dinner table, then perhaps you should also put your phone away during meal times.
Researchers have also noted that doctors are seeing an increase in children coming in for treatments for back and neck pain as a result of frequent mobile device use — what is now widely known as “text neck”. When children are bent and hunched over a phone or tablet, they put strain on the neck muscles, back and upper spine. Such poor posture can have a long-lasting effect as the spinal cord changes shape and creates chronic pain, affects balance and cardiovascular health. Furthermore, sitting for extended periods of time with poor posture compresses the digestive organs, which has a negative effect on the digestive and immune systems.
What can you do? Avoid allowing your child to use devices on the bed or while lying on the couch. Instead, have them sit up straight. Encourage your child to take frequent exercise breaks or stretch their arms above their heads regularly to reset their posture.
Real life engagement still plays a pivotal role in promoting a child’s learning and development but even so, millennial children should also be able to enjoy the benefits of technology. We have some tips to keep communication upfront and not allow it to get lost behind a stream of technology.
- Don’t discourage technology.
Technology is a part of children’s lives, and as parents, you need to ensure that other things are just as important; like exercising, reading and being creative. Parenting is not just about shielding children from the tools of the world, but to equip them with the correct skills on how to use these tools properly, especially when technology is now used during lesson time in schools.
- Set limits and encourage playtime.
In today’s digitally-fuelled times, your child’s well-being will depend on your enforcement of screen time limits and what content is accessible. Using technology should be a shared learning experience for both parent and child. And while children will go on to become tech-savvy individuals, parents still play an important role in encouraging unplugged and unstructured play and discovery, which stimulates creativity in a young child’s mind.
- Screen time shouldn’t be alone time.
Although screen time is not recommended for children below 24 months, you can introduce high quality videos as exposure and co-watch with them. Engage with your child when they are on their devices; it encourages social interaction, bonding and learning. Under a watchful eye, use educational videos and games as a teaching and learning opportunity.
- Don’t use technology as an emotional pacifier.
YouTube videos can be effective in keeping children quiet and occupied, but it is not the only way. Although it can be difficult, don’t use it as a crutch when children get fussy. Young children need to be taught how to manage strong emotions, and not to use screen time to have their way. Seek other ways to channel their emotions and allow them to use their imagination to manage their lack of activity.
- Be your child’s role model.
Screen time leans more towards “passive” listening or one-way interaction. Little ones learn best through two-way communication and that is essential for language development. The essence of a healthy childhood isn’t found with smart devices. Children whose lives center around family and school are the ones who have the best chances of being happy and successful. Children watch how adults behave and they mimic that behaviour. So use your digital devices how you would want your child to use them.
Digital devices and media are now an integral part of our world and as parents, it is our responsibility to make sure our children are taking the benefits of technology, and not becoming its victim. We must remember the science that shows our children need plenty of quality time and real life interaction, both at home and in school. This will shape their minds and foster happiness and self-esteem.
In the end, what counts is the child’s understanding of learning fundamentals including the ability to read, write, calculate and analyse. Life experiences will help develop perseverance, courage and self-control. Life is not just about keeping up with the latest technology, but also teaching young children how to live life well, balanced and to the fullest.