November 14, 2019
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Monitoring Screen Time In A Digital Age

Did you know that the average age for a child to receive their first smartphone is 10 years old? Parents today face an interesting challenge in monitoring both the amount and quality of screen time they allow their kids.

When thinking of your childhood, does your mind wander to playing catch with your siblings in the garden? Or perhaps you spent your Saturday nights using a torchlight to read books in a blanket fortress?

Regardless of what your fondest childhood memories consist of, they probably don’t involve being glued to the screen of a television or swiping across a smartphone. Yet this is the reality for many children today and as a parent in the digital age, it is normal to experience inner conflict when deciding how much time is appropriate for your child to spend in front of a screen.

What is the general consensus?

While many parents carefully consider the likes of disciplinary methods and schooling options, few parents discuss the importance of screen time. After all, how much easier it is to give your child an electronic device to amuse themselves while you get on with cooking the dinner!

Buzzfeed conducted a survey involving over 100,000 people to get an indication of how parents feel about screen time. The tallied answers showed interesting results.

When asked what age is appropriate for a child to get a cell phone, the answers were as follows:

  • 1% - kindergarten
  • 13% - when they can pay for it
  • 34% - fifth grade
  • 52% - not until high school

When probed on the topic of how much screen time to allow, parents answered:

  • 2% - no screen time at all
  • 26% - I’m cool with it, computers are the future
  • 72% - I set limits and schedule time for devices

It appears as though the majority of parents balance screen time by setting limits on the amount of time and age of access to the screen.

The Age of the Screen

We live in a world where books have (unfortunately) become second choice to an iPad or smartphone. With that being said, technology has many incredible benefits. Innovative companies have learnt to harness opportunities presented by technology for educational purposes.

Sadly, the luxuries presented by technology, combined with lazy tendencies, can lead to the abuse of technology. Without even realising it, parents put themselves in a position where screen time can have a negative impact on both the physical and mental health of their families.

Technology is evolving at such a rapid pace that we still know very little about how deeply screen time affects kids, yet there is research constantly being conducted. A recent Canadian study indicated that too much screen time has led to a drop in children’s brain functioning. But how much is too much?

The Canadian 24-hour movement guidelines for Children and Youth recommend the following daily allowances for children aged eight to 11 years of age:

  • At least one hour of physical activity
  • Two hours (or less) of recreational screen time
  • 9 - 11 hours of sleep

Interestingly enough, these guidelines allow for a fair amount of recreational screen time, yet only 37 percent of the children involved in the study stuck to these time limits.

It’s not all that bad!

The good news is that ‘screen time’ doesn’t only mean mind-numbing television shows or violent video games, but rather incredible educational apps, shows and games that encourage mental and physical participation.

In many situations, technological devices can be wonderfully beneficial. For example, age appropriate apps and games made up of quality content can help with the early development of language and literacy. Quality content has also proven to assist with certain aspects of cognitive development including imaginative play and creativity.

When choosing educational apps for your child to use, be sure to select those that encourage genuine engagement rather than repetitive swiping. A good rule of thumb is to determine whether the app encourages discussion or conversation. If it does, get involved in the conversation and encourage further critical thinking.

While it is easier to monitor what younger children are exposed to, it can be more difficult limiting screen time for older children. How do you monitor what your older child is watching without appearing invasive? Try to involve yourself in the content that they consume by chatting about it and watching it with them. From this point, it is easier to decide whether it encourages critical thinking and creativity or not.

Sadly, even with the benefits of monitored quality screen time, technology has taken priority over healthy alternatives that contribute to physical and mental health. With the digital landscape shifting at an incredibly fast rate, it can be difficult to maintain a balance.

Dangers of too much screen time

When watching background television, slumped on the couch with a phone in hand becomes routine behaviour, it can easily develop into a sedentary lifestyle with the associated health risks - such as being overweight. In addition, screens before bedtime are known to be detrimental to sleep patterns.

Understanding that each child develops differently, physicians have put forward the following recommendations:

  • Screen time is not recommended for children younger than two years old
  • Children between two and five years old should have limited routine screen time equating to less than one hour per day
  • Older children should have no more than two hours per day
  • Avoid screens for at least one hour before bedtime to reduce the potential for melatonin-suppression.

Recent studies have highlighted a strong link between time spent in front of a screen and brain function, with a particularly detrimental effect on stress-recovery and sleep. There’s also a potential link between increased screen time and attention deficit disorder.

Being aware of the quality of content and amount of screen time your child is exposed to is key to ensuring a healthy lifestyle - both mentally and physically.

Using screen time as a reward system

Reward systems can be one of the most effective ways to positively change a child’s behaviour yet our current age has replaced sticker charts with access to additional screen time.

How many times have you heard (or said), “If you finish your veggies I’ll let you watch Paw Patrol!” or “If you tidy your room you can play on your phone for 30 minutes before bedtime”. Promising these rewards work quickly and simply!

Despite this highly effective digital-carrot, research suggests that bribes don’t work in the long-term and essentially creates a false reward economy where children are taught that there is always something in it for them if they behave, becoming difficult if there is not. Using technology as a reward also frames it as a toy rather than a tool.

My suggestion? Rather than using screen time as a reward, focus on responsible screen usage. By removing technology as a reward, it reduces a sense of entitlement owed for good behaviour, prioritizing the screen as a functional resource rather than a placeholder for learning social skills such as patience and responsibility. This alternative also takes the pressure off of parents in having to accept a habitually sedentary lifestyle in exchange for moments of peace and quiet.

Tips on how to best use screen time

Each household has a unique dynamic and, as parent, it is up to you to decide the best ways to encourage responsible screen time. Here are a few tips that can make raising a child in a digital age significantly easier and more loving.

Become a part of the (TV) program

Watching the screen with your child is an easy and effective way to prevent the disadvantages associated with solitary viewing. It allows parents to actively curate their child’s screen activities by prioritizing educational and constructive content.

In the same breath, modelling responsible screen time ensures that the child does not need to compete with screens for attention. Set a good example by minimizing your own screen time when children are present, prioritizing quality time with your child through conversation, play and routine, and helping your children to recognize and question problematic content.

Prioritize quality content

Screen-based education can be a huge benefit, providing an alternative to the isolated consumption of unhealthy content. Studies have shown that parents can positively influence certain skills and behaviours by co-viewing quality screen content.

Remember the world around you

Limit screen time in public places and during family routines, such as meal times. While screens have the potential to teach valuable lessons, they do not necessarily allow for practical social learning experiences. So limit snacking at screens and make an effort to socialize away from the temptation.

When choosing content for your child to watch, pay attention to the messages communicated about gender, body image, violence, social issues and paid advertising. Young opinions are formed through exposure.

Encourage the alternative

Empowering your children to help in the home by encouraging participation when doing simple tasks, such as unpacking the dishwasher, can change their mindset about chores and being rewarded for responsibility - especially if these activities are done together. Consider offering alternative activities to pass the time, such as reading a book at the doctor’s room instead of reverting to Candy Crush.

Parenting in the digital age can be difficult to navigate as you have to constantly revise boundaries and stay up to date on happenings. But you are not alone and there is a community of parents pondering the same thoughts. As a family, set limits on screen time and focus on quality content when screen time is permitted. Remember to lead by example and encourage healthy social behaviour that is screen independent.

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