Screen time: How to make it healthy?

Screen time. Before, you read on, it is important to acknowledge first that excessive amounts of time spent in front of the television, on the computer, playing game consoles and using tablets or phones can adversely affect physical, behavioural, emotional and psychological development.

It is agreed that screen technologies and lifestyle changes have led to a general increase in the amount of screen time consumed. There’s no doubting that smart phones, hand held devices and tablets, are the ‘norm’ in almost all families these days. While these devices can and do have educational and communication purposes (e.g. our blog post on OSMO , their usage can at times be ‘excessive’ and lead to negative health impacts. People’s lives are busier now, more than ever, and the convenience of screen technologies to occupy children is undoubted. However, what are the implications of ‘too much screen time’?

Before discussing screen time further, an easy way to limit screen time is to put a time limiter on a game or app, prior to your child playing it. the most updated Apple operating system, iOS 8 (iPhone and iPad) has a ‘time limit’ function. Find out how to set this up.

While there is still some debate amongst professionals, Current Australian Department of Health and Ageing Guidelines state that children younger than 2 years of age should not spend any time watching TV or using other electronic media (DVDs, computer and other electronic games), and children 2 to 5 years of age should be limited to less than one hour per day.

By the time you add up your child’s favourite television shows, plus the time you let your child play on your phone whilst you have coffee with friends, plus the computer games they play, plus the homework and activities they do on their computer/tablet, plus the time they spend flicking through music and playing apps on their iPods at night, it doesn’t take long to surpass the recommended 1 hour maximum!

A Canadian research article published in 2012, highlighted developmental consequences such as delayed language development, aggressive behaviour, cigarette smoking (interestingly enough!) and obesity. The link between screen time and obesity is understood, as screen time activities are sedentary, and being sedentary for hours at a time is linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke. Furthermore, watching television has also been proven to be linked with unhealthy eating habits. Not to mention, that screen time is nowhere near as stimulating for the mind as physical activity or just plain old exploring the environment!

Another important physical impact of screen time is the issue it causes with sleep. Studies have shown that screen time in the 90 minutes leading up to bedtime can cause difficulty in falling asleep and reduce overall sleep time in children. The bright light emitted from screens can disrupt the circadian rhythm (or body clock) and cause increased arousal, which is the last thing you need when trying to get your child to sleep. And there’s more than just a physical impact. According to Psychologist Dr Aric Sigman, prolonged screen time can lead to reductions in attention span due to its affect on the brain chemical, dopamine and can create ‘screen addiction’.

However, there are many discussions about the NEGATIVE impacts of screen time, but fewer about raising children in the digital age, and how to encourage healthy media habits in your family.

Dr Kristy Goodwin, children’s technology and brain researcher, points out that current screen time guidelines are based on research conducted on passive TV viewing. While these time limits are important to guide screen time in a day, she argues in her research, it is important to look at WHAT screen time is being consumed, rather than how much.

While screens do not inherently give rich opportunities to explore the world, provide social interaction, problem solving or higher reasoning, given their presence in the modern world, the reality is children are exposed to screen and technology more and and more each day. Consider two scenarios. In the first, a child spends two hours watching a TV show. In the second, a child spends an hour researching, creating, editing and sharing a presentation on Penguins, created on her iPad. She then spends another hour playing a Tangram and Words game on OSMO, with her older brother. From these scenarios it is obvious that one requires higher-order cognitive skills (sequencing, planning, visual perceptual skills, problem solving and creativity), compared with a more passive screen time.

Given this, it is important to find ways to responsibly provide technology for children, so children can LEARN in a digitally enhanced world. Dr Goodwin states that “When children are exposed to content that is specifically designed for their age-group, and, even better, content that is interactive, learning can take place,”

As has been described in examples such as OSMO, screen time and the involvement of technology in the life of the child can be positive. Because technology has become so ingrained into our daily lives, Dr Goodwin argues that. “If we ignore the technology we’re doing our kids a big disservice”.

Therefore it is imperative for families to consider HOW they can develop healthy media habits to ensure screen time is both effective and not excessive. Dr Goodwin suggests some ways to promote this:

– Ensure children have plenty of time exploring the real, 3-D world with family and friends.

– Use digital devices WITH your children.

– Set up device-free zones. Avoid screens in children’s bedrooms, the kitchen, or the car.

– Set up device free time zones (especially the 90 minutes before bedtime and mealtimes).

– Choose developmentally appropriate, engaging, interactive apps and websites. Curate app collections in folders for each child.

– Be mindful of and limit your own screen use when children are present.


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