Put away that screen and let your children reconnect with the world.Experts have warned that research into the consequences of children’s digital habits doesn’t paint a pretty picture.If you haven’t done it with your own child, you’ve probably seen another parent do it. In a restaurant, in a waiting room, maybe even in church. It’s the one thing most parents know they can count on to keep their little ones quiet and occupied for a while — that magical screen.Smartphones and tablets have become electronic babysitters at home too, keeping your child happily glued to a screen and out of trouble, while you get on with the million things you have to get done.It’s convenient.And if it keeps children occupied — sometimes with educational games and apps — can it really be so bad?“Many parents intuitively know it’s unhealthy for their children to spend hours on end in front of a screen,” said Dr Brendan Belsham, a Johannesburg-based child and adolescent psychiatrist. Even if they don’t fully understand why.“It’s easy to slip into giving children no boundaries with regard to screen time because when they’re on a screen they’re usually quiet, not making a mess and not demanding your attention,” said Nikki Bush, a South African parenting expert and co-author of Tech-Savvy Parenting.“Screens have become a pacifier and a prop. And parents are also copping out because they don’t want to fight. They want to keep their children happy all the time because they don’t want to deal with sulking and whining, but that doesn’t help anyone.”According to the 2018 Healthy Active Kids South Africa (Haksa) report, South African children are spending more than three hours per day looking at screens, excluding for school work.The report from the University of Cape Town’s Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA) said daily screen time for children in school should be limited to two hours, for preschoolers one hour and none for children under two years of age.The report said that with the rise of smartphone use, advertisers use social media to market fast food and soft drinks directly to children.“This is concerning because social media, and the online space in particular, is the Wild West in terms of unregulated and fairly intense and intimate access to children and adolescents’ attention.”The report, which was released recently, was compiled by 30 experts from 14 institutions and organisations in South Africa.It found that more than nine out of 10 (94%) infants and toddlers in low-income and urban areas reportedly exceeded the recommended screen time and “more TV time was related to unhealthy weight”.Close to 10% of three to five-year-old children were overweight and one in four were stunted.Only about half of South Africa’s children are getting the recommended levels of daily physical activity, which is between 57 and 65 minutes.Cindy Glass, director and co-founder of the Step Up Education Centre in Scottsville, said screen time has a danger of removing humanness.“The younger the child is, the worse the impact,” said Glass.She said too much screen time stifles creativity, imagination and playfulness, which are essential to the whole development of children.“Children learn far more by climbing trees and playing outside with real-time imaginative play than they would with screen time. The problem with screen time is that children get instant gratification. They don’t have to think, they don’t have to do much, other than press buttons,” she said.Glass said very little thought and critical thinking are developed in young children as they have too much screen time. “A lot of the time, parents use screen time as a babysitter, not realising the negative impact it has on the child’s cognitive development. They have gross motor skills, fine motor skills and special relations skills that they need to learn as young children. They can do that through active play; doing things like building blocks and creating games for themselves.”She said that while children are growing up in a digitised world, parents should control the amount of screen time that they have. “We cannot exclude them from the digitisation that is taking place around us, but we can limit the amount of screen time that they have, so that they grow up to be balanced human beings,” said Glass.Glass said that through social media, people are losing their ability to connect and create positive human relationships with each other.“Teeny toddlers, vulnerable teens, exhausted parents and even bored grandparents can be seen, head down, shoulders bent and disengaged from the real world as they spend endless hours scrolling through their devices. “Losing a smartphone is a big deal and people often feel a loss that is akin to losing a much-prized body part.” What the experts sayMerise Williams, a Pietermaritzburg-based educational psychologist, said that with the correct parental controls in place and strict rules around when and how often children have access to screen time, the potential risks can be minimised.“Parents should monitor carefully the content their children are viewing and be deliberate and active in protecting their children from the negative impacts of screen time and digital-media use,” said Williams.She said that while there may be some benefits, such as access to educational tools and content, none of these weigh up to the benefits that come from active learning and socialising.“The practical tools and experiences we encounter play a vital role in learning. They are key to their development and simply cannot be substituted by digital media,” said Williams. Many experts in child health recommend against youngsters having a TV or computer in their bedrooms to reduce screen exposure before bedtime.Research in 2013 found that screen time of more than four hours a day resulted in a 49% greater risk of taking longer than an hour to go to sleep.In particular, using a computer, smartphone or MP3 player in the hour before bedtime, significantly delayed the onset of sleep, the Norwegian study of 16 to 19-year-olds found.In 2010, research from the University of Bristol in the UK, advocated that parents limit their children’s use of screens to two hours a day.The study found that children who used screens heavily were more likely than those who took regular exercise, to agree with statements such as “I am unhappy”.According to new guidelines by the United Kingdom Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, children should avoid screen time for at least an hour before bedtime and parents should lead by example.The college said in its guidelines that parents must ensure youngsters are not spending too long on smartphones, tablets or watching television, which can disturb sleep patterns and have knock-on effects. The guidelines are designed to help parents manage their children’s screen time. Following a major review, the experts acknowledged that high levels of screen time are linked to a less-healthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle and poorer mental health.But the experts said there is little evidence that screen time is directly “toxic” to health. They stopped short of setting recommended time limits and said there is insufficient evidence that screen time in itself is harmful to child health at any age. Instead, they recommend that parents should judge whether screen time in their household is controlled or if it interferes with family life, sleep or meal times. They suggest that parents should approach screen time based on the child’s developmental age, the individual need and the value the family places on positive activities such as socialising, exercise and sleep. When screen time displaces these activities, the evidence suggested there is a risk to child wellbeing, the guidelines said. “Families should negotiate screen time limits with their children based upon the need of the individual child, the way in which screens are used, the degree to which use of screens appears to displace (or not) physical and social activities and sleep,” the guidelines said. SA children at high cyber riskIn a study by the World Economic Forum, children between the ages of eight and 12 are the most vulnerable online. It was found that 62% of children in that age group have been exposed to at least one cyber risk. The statistics place South Africa in the top 10 of countries that are at risk out of the 29 countries that were polled.The study polled 38 000 children and measured the different risks they’re exposed to, including cyberbullying, sexual grooming, the sharing of sexual content and video-game addiction. This means that 64% of these children have been exposed to one or more cyber risks. Experts founds that 55% of the children polled were victims of cyber bullying, 11% had chatted with a stranger online and 18% had engaged in online sexual behaviours. These sexual behaviours included sexual conversations with strangers and searching, downloading and sharing sexual content online.The study found that children residing in developing countries where there is an emerging IT sector are mostly at risk and reinforcements and safety precautions should be put in place to prevent them from being exposed to dangerous behaviours online. Older kids, different problemsThe negative effects that excessive screen time has on social interaction and development play out in different ways across age groups, Glass said.Think of teens, for example, who happily sacrifice inter-person conversations and instead connect with their peers via social media, perhaps even when they’re in the same room. While this isn’t a new phenomenon, we’ve yet to see how it will affect their social development, and Glass believes the effects will be profound.“What’s happening is teenagers aren’t learning adult social skills,” she said.How to reduce screen timeCindy Glass advised parents to consider the following tips to reduce the amount of screen time that they allow themselves and their kids:1. You have to set the example. Your children are more likely to do what you do, rather than what you say. You cannot expect your children to reduce their screen time if you do not do the same.2. Have dedicated no-go zones and times for devices. Family activities, meal times and even when driving in a car, can be cellphone-free zones.3. Go outside. Plan activities that involve going into nature. It is great for the soul and it will increase all the happy hormones in your bodies!4. Encourage your children to get involved in activities beyond the school environment — sport, drama, music and art are great examples.5. Very young children need to play with their hands and bodies, not on a device.