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The Balancing act of addressing Children’s screen time

In the age of digital technology, our children’s screentime has become a topic of debate among parents, educators and health professionals alike. Research shows that  preschoolers spend over 6 hours a week online. As devices become increasingly intertwined with our lives, many parents grapple with the question: should guilt be attached to children’s screen time? Balancing the undeniable benefits of technology with the potential drawbacks is a challenge that requires careful consideration and a mindful approach.


The case for caution


Excessive screen time has been considered as one of the key contributors to the rapid rise in mental health issues in children. Children who spend more time on screens often experience disrupted sleep patterns, contributing to fatigue and lower academic performance. This disruption is due to the blue light emitted by screens which interferes with the body's natural sleep cycle, making it harder for children to fall and stay asleep.


The instant gratification provided by digital media can negatively impact children’s ability to focus and delay gratification. Such effects can have long-term implications for their attention spans and impulse control, skills essential for academic, and personal success. A study by the University of Alberta found that by the age of 5, children who had spent 2 hours or more looking at a screen per day were 7.7 times more likely to meet the criteria for an ADHD diagnosis than children who spent less than 30 minutes using screens.


Excessive screen time can also hinder the development of crucial life skills in children. Excessive screen time may mean they miss out on real world experiences necessary to develop real-world feelings such as empathy, problem solving abilities and other social skills. These skills are crucial for emotional and social growth and are honed through face to face interactions.


It's essential for parents to be aware of these dangers and take proactive steps to mitigate them. By fostering a balanced approach to screen time, parents can help ensure that their children enjoy the benefits of technology without falling prey to its pitfalls.


Finding the balance


Here are some tips for creating balanced screentime:


Quality of screen time


Rather than branding all screen time bad, it is helpful to think about the content on the screen as well as your interaction with the child while watching. Collective screentime: watching something together and then talking about it, helps your child get the most out of learning from what they’ve seen. Playing a game or watching something can be a way of learning new words. But it is important that content your child watches is well suited to their level so they can understand and learn as opposed to just passively watching. Opt for screens that require active engagement, such as educational games rather than passive consumption such as watching videos.


Be a role model


Children often imitate their parents, so demonstrating balanced screen use and prioritising offline activities can set a positive example. In 2021 Kapersky surveyed over 11,000 parents of 7-12 year olds and found that the most important factor in raising digitally regulated children was how sensitive parents are to their own performance as role models. Work on your own digital habits to positively influence your kids.


Setting clear boundaries


Trying to establish rules for when and for how long screens can be used can help mitigate some negative effects. For instance, watching screens during mealtimes makes it harder to slow down and connect with each other. So, try experimenting with going screen-free whilst eating. You could prepare your environment for this, such as a box to store devices away from the table. As a family then discuss the benefits of this decision. Other potential boundaries could be: no screens an hour before bedtime, agreeing on device-free areas or scheduling screen time breaks.


Using parental control settings on devices and apps helps to manage screen time and make sure content accessed is suitable.


Create other interests


It is important that screens are not all encompassing and that do not displace other activities. Screen time should be balanced with physical activity. Prolonged screentime also means prolonged lack of real movement and supplementing with physical activity is crucial to balanced screentime. Participation in team sports also promotes social skills and teamwork, which can be lost through screen time. Cultivating other interests that do not involve screens, such as reading or playing a musical instrument is also a good way to create balanced screentime.


The benefits of balanced screen time


Used in the right way screens can stimulate learning. Educational apps and programs enhance learning, making complex subjects like math and science more accessible. Interactive games and activities can improve hand-eye coordination, problem solving abilities and strategic thinking. Children can even begin to learn new languages. Screen time can introduce children to diverse cultures and ideas, widening their worldview and encouraging empathy. Screentime can also foster creativity. Digital tools allow children to create music, art, and stories, providing a platform for self-expression.


Technology can also be a bridge for social connections, especially within a globalised world where family and friends could be far away. Video calls can be less abstract than phone calls for children and help make for more interactive chats with family.

Of course, screens also provide an easy solution for parents seeking to keep children engaged and entertained in a busy stressful world. But establishing balanced screentime through the tips suggested will help children build good habits early, which will stay with them as they grow.


So should parents feel guilty about screen time?


The key to managing children's screen time lies in finding a balanced approach that utilises the benefits while mitigating the drawbacks. Parents should not necessarily feel guilty about screen time but should make it a constructive part of their children’s lives. By focusing on quality content, setting clear boundaries, modelling good habits, and encouraging a variety of activities, parents can help their children develop healthy screen habits that will benefit them in the long run.

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