Is screen time toxic to health? Some say yes. This view is popular, for example, with those who link the rapid rise of myopia (short-sightedness) worldwide to the increased use of and exposure to electronic devices. In Singapore, 65% of students in primary school are myopic! It’s also the viewpoint of the University of Alberta who, in April 2019, published findings that by the age of five, children who spent two hours or more looking at a screen each day were 7.7 times more likely to have criteria suitable for a diagnosis of ADHD than children who spent 30 minutes on a screen.
Yet some scientists say screen time is not harmful! The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which this year issued guidelines for the use of phones, tablets, televisions and computers by children, reported that there was not enough evidence in their review, carried out by paediatricians at University College London, to suggest that screens are harmful to children’s health.
It’s all very confusing, so what should parents think? Well, even the RCPCH guidelines did say that screen time must not be allowed to interrupt positive activities for children, such as socialising, exercise or sleep. It also explained that when it comes to diet, watching screens can distract children from feeling full and this may be the reason they snack so much when using screens. This and the fact screen time often exposes children to advertising for unhealthy foods are reasons devices have often been linked to obesity. The RCPCH also admitted that more research was needed on the effect of social media on young minds, particularly in association with the sleep deprivation screen time can cause (the blue light emitted by devices disrupts the body’s secretion of melatonin, a hormone that induces sleep).
So, for pre-schoolers, how much is too much? The RCPHC said its review couldn’t lead them to say(!) but the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has long-time suggested that under-twos should not watch any screens at all and that older children only spend 2 hours a day or less on devices. Recently, it has updated this advice to reflect the increased use of devices by families. Now it recommends:
up to 18 months: face-timing only – for example, with a relative.
18 to 24 months: good-quality programmes, viewed with a parent.
2 to 5 years: no more than one hour a day, viewed with a parent.
It's never too early to set boundaries. Older children can definitely get absorbed by their smartphones and games, and even though teenage years seem far removed from the bundle of joy pre-schoolers can be, it’s important for families to set boundaries early in a child’s life – before screen-use controls a household, stops a family doing what it wants to do, interferes with a child’s sleep and children munch through packets to the detriment of waistlines.
Here are some pointers…
Make sure your child understands the boundaries: be consistent in their implementation.
Set a limit on how much screen time is allowed.
Have media-free zones, especially the bedroom, even for charging.
Offer praise if the boundaries are adhered to; ensure there are consequences if boundaries are crossed.
Watch screens together and initiate conversations about what you see.
Provide alternatives – encourage creativity and play outside, read a book, play a game instead.
Introduce media-free times – make meal times screen-free; make sure you don’t have devices on constantly as background noise; switch off the Wi-Fi for a regular period; consider a longer digital detox for the whole family.
Be a role model: switch off your own phone.
Don’t just sweep in and snatch away. Giving a warning first hands control to the child, offering them the chance to press the "off" button themselves.
How to play safe! The NSPCC has excellent advice about online safety. If you need to be talked through setting up parental controls, adjusting privacy settings or want advice on social networks, you can ring the NSPCC helpline: ring 0808 800 5002. Or, take a look at their information at https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/keeping-children-safe/online-safety/
The NSPCC advises:“You can reduce the chances of your child seeing inappropriate material accidentally by making use of the controls available in search engines like Google and Bing and by setting up filters like Google SafeSearch. Or by using Swiggle and Safe Search UK, which are child-friendly search engines.”
The children's charity points out:
Some venues and businesses offer family-friendly Wi-Fi. When you see this symbol, left, it means there are filters in place to stop children seeing harmful content.
But warns: “Public Wi-Fi is often available when you’re out and about. But it’s not always secure and can allow children to search the internet free from controls.”
And recommends: If despite all the safety controls, a child still sees something that makes them feel uncomfortable, make sure you talk about it with them and reassure them you’re always there to protect them.
Last word: A number of lens manufacturers produce eyeglass lenses that filter out the blue light from our screens.
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