I have been asked many times recently what I would recommend regarding screen time for children. It has become one of the most frequent doorknob questions (the kind of question patients or parents ask just as they are about to leave the office…literally with one hand on the doorknob). The other 2 very common doorknob questions include sleep issues and sex issues and will be discussed in a later blog.
What’s the deal with screens?
A generation ago parents worried about the effects of watching too much TV. Before that it was listening to too much radio. Once upon a time, people wouldn’t get into an elevator unless it had an operator in it…the advent of self-driven elevators was threatening and scary for people not used to them.
The current concern is screen time… inclusive of the total amount of time spent interacting with TV’s, computers, smartphones etc.
Truthfully, I find the screen time questions incredibly difficult to answer, and here’s why…
1. We live in a technologically driven era. Completely annihilating access to screens is going to put people at a massive disadvantage…there has to be some screen exposure. I grew up without access to much screen time (we had a black and white TV set until I was about 10 years old and even after that our TV time was severely limited). My knowledge of computers extends to… turn it off and then on again and if that doesn’t fix it phone-a-friend! There are also many educational environments which are using digital pads and television to facilitate the academic curriculum.
2. Too much screen time is as problematic as too little screen time, it has negative effects on social interactions, situational awareness, weight management, motor development, sensory integration, sleep patterns etc. Recent reports suggested that heavy screen use may be associated with lower scores on certain aptitude tests. As with most research, results have been variable and in some cases contradictory, therefore we cannot say with any degree of certainty that too much TV makes you stupid and uncoordinated but it’s still a topic of hot debate in many circles.
Whenever put on the spot with difficult questions like how much screen time is right, I try to bring a common-sense approach into the mix whilst still turning to the guidelines which are created through the study of appropriate clinical evidence.
The American Academy of paediatrics guideline (2016) recommends:
• NO screen time for children < 18 months
• 18-24 months introduce digital media in very limited amounts, choose high quality programming and watch with the child to help him/her understand what he/she is seeing
• 2-5 years: max 1 hour per day of high-quality programming with appropriate adult supervision as above.
• > 6years: Consistent limits placed on all media. Designated media free time should be allocated. Ongoing communication regarding online safety. Media free locations eg. bedrooms and consistent, appropriate supervision by a responsible adult.
These guidelines are very helpful, but it is not always practical or possible to impose them as strictly as outlined above and if there is a day when you cannot adhere to these 100% then there is no need for hysteria.
What does logic tell me?
Screens should ideally not be used as an electronic baby-sitter, with no adult input.
Supervision to help children process and understand what they are watching is a vital component of screen-time interactions. If managed correctly, this could make for good quality family time, where everyone can enjoy their screen time whilst spending time together and providing the kids with the supervision they need in a relatively non-threatening manner.
Children and adolescents also need to move, play and interact with each other and their environments. Screen time can be built into this type of scenario as well, by using the technology available to us to facilitate or participate in physical activities and educational games. If there is a day when it’s pouring with rain outside, instead of lying on a couch and binge-watching Netflix, perhaps try moving the physical activity indoors and use our technological wealth to facilitate it.
Happy viewing 😊
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