Screen time and your kids: how much is too much?

PHOTO: Getty Images/Gallo Images
PHOTO: Getty Images/Gallo Images

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 you know you can count on to keep a little one 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 just so convenient. And with the school holidays upon us, those babysitters are likely to work overtime.

But research into the consequences of children’s digital habits doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Excessive screen time can stunt cognitive development in the early years, hinder social interaction and cause kids to become disengaged, researchers say.

But if it keeps kids 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,” says 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 kids 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,” says Nikki Bush, a 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 kids happy all the time because they don’t want to deal with sulking and whining – but that doesn’t help anyone.”

The crucial early years

When young kids become hooked on tablets and smartphones it can cause permanent damage to their developing brain, says Dr Aric Sigman of the British Psychological Society.

Parents might think giving their twoyear- old a tablet or smartphone to play with will give them an educational edge, but too much screen time too soon “impedes the development of the abilities parents are so eager to foster – the ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention, to sense other people’s attitudes and communicate with them, to build a large vocabulary – all those abilities are harmed”.

The problems stem from the very things that make smartphones and tablets so amazing – the stimulation right there at your fingertips, the ability to process many things at the same time, the fact that the device thinks for you – that’s exactly what young brains don’t need because they end up with weak “cognitive muscles”.

“What we’re seeing with toddlers is that they’re attaching to objects instead of peers and parents,” says neurotherapist and doctor of psychology Mari Swingle, author of i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming and Social.

Media Are Changing Our Brains, Behaviour and the Evolution of Our Species.

“When we talk about straight discipline and obedience, they’re not responding to parents as much. They throw a tantrum without their devices. They don’t know how to self-occupy or play – and play is learning at that age.”

Bush says one of the problems she’s encountered is parents using screens as an emotional crutch.

“They’re used as a way to put children to sleep or to get them to eat – and this means the kids are not developing the self-regulation skills and self-discipline for the basics in life.

“What I call Triple ‘S’ syndrome – solitary, sedentary, screen-based existence – is eroding the connections on which we build our families and our children’s futures,” Bush says. “It’s a sad fact that many children now engage with onscreen activities rather than sharing a bedtime story, songs or conversations with their parents.”

Older kids, different problems           

The negative effects that excessive screen time have on social interaction and development play out in different ways across age groups, Swingle says.

Think of teens, for example, who happily sacrifice in-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 Swingle believes the effects will be profound.

“What’s happening is teenagers aren’t learning adult social skills,” she says.

One of the other problems, particularly in older kids, is it often makes kids moody, Belsham says.

“Gaming seems to induce irritability in even the most placid children. These emotional effects are immediately after a screen session.”

Kids who spend a lot of time in front of a screen also often complain of being bored when they’re not on a device.

“This happens because the brain’s reward centre has been spoilt by a glut of stimulation, and nothing else can fill the void,” Belsham says.

All the child needs to do is swipe their finger across a touchscreen and there’s a burst of colour or sound – and their brain responds by releasing dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure.

When a child gets too used to this immediate and pleasurable response, they learn to always prefer smartphone-style interaction over the real world.

It’s worryingly similar to the behavioural pattern exhibited by drug and alcohol addicts, as a British addiction specialist recently pointed out at an education conference in London.

Giving your child a smartphone is like giving them a gram of cocaine, addiction specialist Mandy Saligari said.

Belsham says this may be a bit of an overstatement, but there’s truth in it.

“Both cocaine and excessive screen viewing – especially online gaming – stimulate an area of the brain responsible for feelings of pleasure and ultimately addiction. Over time, excessive stimulation of this area raises the threshold at which pleasure is experienced, making more subtle experiences – such as reading, conversation, a walk in the garden – boring and unappetising.”

How to get a handle on it

Parents should lead by example, Belsham says. “You may not [necessarily] be playing Minecraft, and you may rationalise [your screen time] in various ways (‘It’s work, sweetie’), but your children are observing you all the time, and they learn more from what you do than from what you say.”

He suggests putting these basic rules in place:

· No electronic devices in bedrooms. “They’re bad for sleep and difficult to

Supervise if not in communal spaces.”

· No electronics at mealtimes. Put phones away and switch the TV off. “It’s important for families to spend at least one meal a week together around the table, talking and making eye contact.”

· Set time limits and stick to them. “Your child won’t, so you have to. Set a timer if you need to.”

· Chores must be done first. “Screen time shouldn’t happen first thing in the morning on weekends, for example – other things must get done first, including chores, exercise, family activities and the like. In this way, electronics can be used as an incentive.”

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