There is no getting away from the advantages of having a computer –they are now essential for our children’s education. Mobile phones allow us to know that our children are safe when they are away from home and there are some amazing documentaries on TV that show our children incredible images and information. Life has become easier for our children. They can type word-processed assignments, connect with friends from home, find entertainment at the press of a button and research information on just about anything.
But too much screen time can have many disadvantages. It is estimated that children will spend one full year of ‘24 hour’ days in front of a screen by the age of seven and The average screen time for young British adolescents is now 6.1 hours a day and rising.
So what can a parent do to reduce the amount of time their child spends in front of the TV, surfing the net, chatting on Facebook or playing games on a computer or mobile?
Firstly it is useful to look at the disadvantages to our children due to the use of technology.
Physical Health disadvantages
High levels of screen time make children:
- More obese, more tired due to time spent in front of screens and difficulty falling asleep caused by electrical and light stimulation of the brain
- Inactivity –watching TV uses even less calories than sleeping due to reduced movements
- Tendency to snack on junk food whilst in front of a screen and
- Being influenced by adverts for foods and drinks with poor nutritional values.
- More prone to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and insomnia
- Less energetic
- Less fit and have a decreased muscle tone
- More at risk of long-term back pain due to poor posture.
- More likely to develop repetitive strain injuries.
- Prone to poorer eyesight due to long periods focussing on a screen and not using the eye muscles to focus on long-distance objects, and flashing imagery often associated with TV and computer game use.
Mental health disadvantages
- More prone to anxiety
- More likely to become addicted to computer games or social network sites
- Have higher levels of fearfulness
- More prone to depressed mental health and bad moods due to reduced exposure to sunlight and movement and poor relationship and coping skills
- Less connected to reality –children have more difficulty separating fact from fiction and mistaking game mastery for success and control
- More prone to cyberbullying particularly with online chat rooms, instant messaging, online games and texts.
- More prone to depression due to decreased social interaction and sometimes Facebook addiction where the social activities and reported happiness of others are watched and envied.
- More prone to pressure from peers to be involved in or view ‘happy slapping’ (filming the bullying of another child) or ‘sexting’ (posting sexual images of yourself)
- More likely to view porn as part of sexual curiosity, or completely accidentally and be exposed to disturbing images and adult material that distorts views of normal loving relationships and destroys childhood innocence
- More likely to develop addictions long-term due to poor social skills, inability to deal with psychological setbacks and the need to rely on external means of entertainment, relaxation and compensation for poor relationship skills.
- More likely to have fewer close friendships due to less time spent strengthening friendships
- Have fewer social skills such as talking, listening, debating, negotiating and conflict resolution skills due to less time socialising with friends and family and screen time interfering with conversations and discussion.
- Have less opportunity for understanding traditional family values, morals and manners which aid social development and interactions.
- Make critical remarks, anti-social jokes, and view harassment and intolerance as amusing due to viewing programmes, reality shows and comedies which present such behaviours as acceptable.
- More aggressive due to exposure to aggression and violent images
- More irritable caused by long periods of inactivity, a build-up of adrenaline and pent up energy with no physical release. Arguments, tantrums and sibling fights are more frequent after long periods of time in front of a screen.
- More likely to achieve lower grades
- Spend less time on homework and school projects, and have difficulty focussing on work that requires them to think after long periods of passively watching TV.
- Less able to focus on skill-based activities such as creative arts, playing an instrument or sports
- Likely to read fewer books
- Have a reduced attention span and boredom due to expectation of instant entertainment and quick-moving images such as those found on TV and electronic games
- Spend less time on play, outdoor activities and using imagination all vital for cognitive development
- Have less money due to persuasion by advertisers to be materialistic and buy advertised products
- More likely to spend money on mobile phones, iPods, apps, computer games, games consoles etc. which are much more expensive than traditional toys and games.
So how can you reduce the impact of screen time and create a balance?
- Talk to children about the disadvantages of high levels of computer game use in ways that they can understand
- Preferably remove TV’s and computers from children’s bedrooms –or have a timer on computers or internet access to stop their use at a specific time. Make sure children cannot access mobile phones or games consoles after bedtime
- Set a good example by prioritising social and family time, and making time to play or talk with children. As parents try to limit your own use of screens and technology to lead by example.
- Set limits for children’s time in front of a screen (your family-your rules, but ideally this should not exceed 2 hours a day)
- Praise children when they make good decisions about viewing time
- Have meals without the TV on – make mealtimes family time. Don’t allow any eating of snacks in front of the TV
- Encourage outdoor play and social activities
- Provide good books, board games and toys to engage children and encourage children to use them
- Encourage your children to have interests and hobbies and spend time actively pursuing them
- Supervise and monitor which TV programmes are watched and which sites your children can access on the computer. Don’t allow unsupervised access.
- Occasionally check what computer sites your child has accessed and talk to them about it.
- Spend time playing with your child on the computer and make the activity social
- Provide computer games that encourage activity and physical movement, such as the Wii
- When watching TV plan an activity during the adverts such as running on the spot, jumping jacks or ask who can do the most sit-ups. Or use an exercise machine in front of the TV
- Encourage other children to come to your home to play –encourage activities other than computer games or TV.
- Stop children being in front of a screen for 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime to reduce the excitation of the brain before sleep.
- Have screen-free days – maybe one day a week – and have screen-free times each day
- Ask for your children’s suggestions on what you can do as a family to create a healthy balance of computer and television use. Consider screen time vs. active time and ways to compensate for the health and social difficulties that using technology may cause.
- Set rules about screen times on school days and non-school days with rewards for cooperation and consequences for non-compliance or arguing and enforce them consistently.
- Use computer programmes to log screen time, limit sites your children can access and shut computers down after the time limit for the day is reached
- Let children earn screen time by helping out at home
- Set regular times for homework or practising an instrument or skill which happen every day at the same time to encourage the habit.
- Spend 15-20 minutes every day with each child playing, talking or doing something that they want to do that does not involve screen time.
- Talk to children about adverts, product placements and images supported by the media that do not reflect reality. Encourage your child to be discerning and spot poor media practices, such as using celebrities to promote products and the use of skinny models in adverts.
- Eliminate background TV
- Record programmes to watch later
- Watch TV with your child and talk about the programme afterwards. Encourage them in critical thinking.
Reading this may help parents make a decision about the rules they want for their children and screen time, but in reality, many parents pendulum swing between being determined to reduce the time their children spend in front of screens and giving in for the sake of peace. Effective parents need to make decisions about the habits and qualities they want for their children in the long-term and stick to the restricting the use of technology. This will be good for their children’s development for the months and years ahead.
As with all things, a balance is required. There may be days which prove the exception to the rule. But if parents genuinely want the best for their children, limiting screen time is a habit well-worth pursuing. No child will be happy when viewing time or games are restricted in the short-term. But interestingly most children, over time, learn to appreciate the time it creates and the activities that replace screen time. Consistency with this rule may have one of the biggest impacts on your children’s long-term intelligence, fitness and mental health than any other guideline in your household.