Managing Screen Time

So how much is too much and what is the right balance? Part of being enthusiastic about technology is also being responsible in setting firm guidelines for it’s use. I am a strong advocate for as much physical, social and creative time as possible away from screens. The iPad should always be part of a balanced approach to play and education. There are a lot of aspects to consider and it’s a really interesting topic in this day and age when technology is clearly entrenched in our children’s future. It’s absolutely a new frontier. Parenting today presents a whole host of different challenges that we don’t have a template for from our own childhood. But even without that common sense voice in our head which tells us kids shouldn’t be sitting down staring into a screen for too long at one sitting, surely we can turn to the wealth of research to help us draw our own conclusions about what’s right for our family… or can we? In fact the current guidelines are based on old research that is applicable to TV viewing. But iPads and equivalent screens are consumed quite differently to the passive nature of the way we watch TV. Apps generally require much more engagement and thinking, so is the same old research really applicable?

Well, the answer to that is that is it really depends on the content. There are quality apps that promote higher order thinking and there are junk apps that can overstimulate and promote deep attachment to ‘screens’.  I think we’ve all witnessed ‘screen come down’ as my friend calls it – the meltdown that occurs on turning off the iPad. Well, it doesn’t have to be like that! Kids need to be taught how to manage screen time and given boundaries and an understanding of why the iPad is not the be all and end all of entertainment options. The earlier we start with that, the better. They won’t actually have the skills to self-regulate until after 5 years of age so we can help them make healthy habits so by five they already feel comfortable with healthy boundaries around using technology. Here are a ideas:

1). Set the Timer: Did you know that in built clock app has a timer that has a ‘Stop Playing’ option which turns off the iPad after a set period? We use this one every time my son has the iPad. He has one hour of free play per day. Since the implementation of the timer into our routine there are no problems when it comes to turning the iPad off. Android and Samsung phones have the same feature.

2) Check app options: Some apps have timers built into them too, such as some of the Toca Boca apps. Daytime scenes will go to night time for example. Check out the parent settings.

3) Be cautious around using apps that provide constant positive feedback., such as ‘Great!’ ‘Well done!’ ‘You’re awesome!” The brain receives dopamine when we engage in this way with technology, so kids can get very attached to that device and the constant feedback. They can form really strong attachments. With careful app selection we can ensure they are forming the best habits right from the start. We’re looking for apps that ask kids to problem solve, think and plan, not those of the ‘answer and reward’ format. That is not what they need to be an effective learner.

4) What are you modelling? Do you have your own iPhone / screen addiction? Are you telling the kids to put theirs down whilst you are constantly on yours?  You might find you have a bit of work to do yourself!

Here’s another consideration when choosing apps, how likely is the content to overstimulate little brains? This video made a major impact on me and strongly influenced how we manage screen time at our place. It shows how easily a child’s brain can be overstimulated by everyday children’s programs. It reveals a study detailing what happens when brains are overstimulated and how this later impacts both the ability to pay attention and social behaviours. What I found most interesting was how they revealed the pace of the viewing material as a major part of the problem. The number of edits, the speed of the graphics, the level of noise. Not just the overall volume of screen time consumed per day.

These are the current guidelines as can be found on the Raising Children Network:

Screen time is the time you spend watching TV or DVDs, using the computer, playing video or hand-held computer games, and using a mobile phone. A healthy family lifestyle includes limits on daily screen time.

How much screen time for children?

Not much is the simple answer. Children under two should steer clear of the screen altogether. Children aged 2-5 years should have no more than an hour a day. And children aged 5-18 years should have no more than two hours.

A wide range of activities is important for children’s development. These activities include active physical play, creative and imaginative play, hands-on fun, and anything that involves relationships and interactions with real people.

I think these guidelines basically still apply, but I prefer to include a little wriggle room there for the 0-2 age group. The crux of the issue is not to let screens replace opportunities for our children’s normal social engagement with their parents and peers. But what if you are playing an appropriate game with your toddler and talking about shapes, colours and ideas on the screen? Then your child is still benefitting from conversation, exposure to vocabulary and learning new skills. I see this as a valuable use of screen time.

Whilst I am deeply enthusiastic about technology and all it’s myriad potential for engaging our little learners, I do wonder however, with the advent of all our wonderfully entertaining little screens, when considering this issue of over stimulation, have we eradicated boredom? And if so, is this a good thing?

The natural need for physical and social development away from the screen had already put boundaries on our digital downtime. But I think this issue even extends to over scheduling our kids lives. According to a book called ‘The Digital Invasion’, (Hart and Frejd, 2013) a lack of boredom is going to have a serious knock on effect on creative thinking:

“When people (and this includes our children) keep their brains busy with digital input, they forfeit downtime.  Downtime is what the brain needs between learning tasks so that it can process and consolidate the information it is learning” (p. 67)…”We are only really thinking when our brains are idle.  It can’t do much thinking when other demands take precedence” (p. 72).

As a yoga teacher I see this all coming back to the issue of mindfulness. Both adults and kids can benefit from slowing down, releasing that need to be busy or to be seen as being someone who is busy. Not every morning needs an agenda. We’ve started to set up an art space where the kids have easy access to creative materials. I generally have a few ideas in mind if needed, but the idea is that given a bit of space and access to materials, the kids can come up with their own ideas to get the creative ball rolling. Then once we’re all exhausted from running/creating / playing we can enjoy some quiet time with our fantastic apps!


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