Today’s world is extremely technology driven. And keeping pace with this explosive digital progression are its users who are steadily growing younger and younger. So much so that many of us think nothing of handing over a smart phone to an 18 month old toddler to keep the child quiet or occupied. In fact we are at times guilty of applauding our young children’s quick ability to grasp the intricacies of modern tech faster than us. So growing up on a diet of touch screens and digital inventions may result in a few home-grown ten year old Einsteins-in-the-making—- that is if their brains have not already been damaged or stunted, say experts.
And though there is despite all the research, no actual conclusive evidence that it does, it is still a terrifying thought, since along with many other eminent authorities, Dr. Aric Sigman of Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine, believes that these devices ‘can unintentionally cause permanent damage to their still-developing brains. Too much screen time too soon is the very thing impeding the development of the abilities that parents are so eager to foster through the tablets. 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 ‘critical period’ of brain development for a child is between birth and three years when it needs certain specific even physical stimuli/interaction from the outside /real world to develop and grow mentally/ physically and that is not available or possible if you plonk your child in front of a screen all the time.
But if a television screen, a tablet, laptop, Ipad or a smartphone constitutes screen time then so would an educative/interactive drawing/vocabulary/number game, an e-reader and an e-book. At a stretch it could also include a Skype/face time call with the grandparents or even children’s’ videos that have the child glued to the screen for hours.
So being an inevitable reality of modern living it’s obviously next to impossible to create a completely screen-free environment and totally eliminate screen time from not only our lives but also our kids.
So how do we handle it?
We need to live with it- intelligently.
1) Be role model- parents. Use these devices sparingly. So text/talk/tap/swipe/ message/watch the screen when the child is asleep or not with you. And rather than stopping the child outright from using devices which you are constantly using, teach the child by example, gradually and intelligently how and when to use them. But remember prevention is better than cure so prevent it before it becomes an addiction. So you need to curtail your own screen time in front of your child. You also need to not use it as an electronic baby sitter to suit your convenience.
2) Inculcate healthy digital habits. Have rules. Limit usage time- say half an hour to one hour of whatever they like to watch. No screen time- or at best 15 minutes for toddlers. Moderate for preschoolers or schedule screen time for older kids- maybe before dinner or after homework everyday/under supervision. Monitor the content. Use parental control apps or web filters to block inappropriate websites. Educative, nonviolent, gentle and soothing programs are known to create happy children. It’s also healthy for children to be bored sometimes. Having a doodling pad with nothing to doodle is better than watching TV or swiping away on a smart phone. It could get the child to start using its brains/mind rather than be a couch potato with no thought in its head
3) Too much screen time tends to over-stimulate the brain as well. It affects sleep patterns, makes the child hyper and can cause fatigue too. It can affect the child’s posture, cause eyes strain, headaches along with wrist and neck problems. The blue rays that these devices emit are also believed to damage eyesight. So does sleeping near a device. So keep them out of the bedroom too.
4) Step up your interaction with your children. Distract them. Play games/talk /laugh/enjoy/read with them. In short, engage with them – outdoors, because kids simply love it there in the open – and indoors, so that screens slowly lose their fascination. In any case toddlers /very young children learn and grow more by interaction with parents not by watching a screen which actually makes no sense to them-till they are older
5) Introduce more physical activities. Screen time cannot give them the necessary stimuli for development that physical actions can. Take them on outings; encourage them to play games that are physically stimulating-running/jumping- play and interact with other children. Chalk out programs with other parents as to how to limit screen time and keep them occupied
6) Interacting through a screen also does not give older kids a chance to see the actual results or the impact of their actions as would perhaps an active game of foot- ball or tennis. Online reactions could on the other hand cause negative behavioral changes if reality does not come up to expectations. Children could also become more aggressive since there is no outlet for all their natural pent up energy.
7) So if your child has already had a lot of digital exposure you need to watch for changes in mannerisms, temperament and behavior and try to wean the child away slowly and patiently by creating other distractions-through music, drawing/coloring or such creative activities/chores that they enjoy- that will have them mentally/physically stimulated and occupied. Kittens at play in real life are more fun than those lovely creatures online.
8) These devices also tend to promote instant gratification. For example touch screens – whatever they want is at their fingertips. This can cause attention problems. The child can turn into a frustrated adult if things happen to not go his/her way as fast, later. So it’s better to limit and monitor their online activities now.
9) Addiction – Mobile/internet/TV can also make children withdrawn and avoid people as they become used to interacting only with their screens or phones. But to stop screen time totally and suddenly may have a negative impact. Also like the forbidden fruit more attractive. So to prevent social anxiety, opportunities like say shared viewing with friends, need to be created where they find activities with others more fun than solo screen-time. That can only be possible if you as a parent become personally involved in their lives in every way.
10) Despite all this, children as is also obvious-especially preschoolers apart from older kids do learn a lot from watching stuff on these devices. So then choose quality content-websites/you tubes / interactive apps/ story/rhyme/sports videos/webcam (grandma Face time/Skype) time that are child friendly. Share, discuss, exchange ideas and bond with them while you watch together. It helps develop and secure their emotional quotient as well.
So you see it isn’t that all screen time is bad. If used wisely and in a controlled manner under parental supervision it can be a tool to enhance learning and improve cognitive understanding in older children. Turn screen time (e.g. Skype with grandparents) into an accessory that is to be used sparingly as an adjunct to enjoyment and not as the main source. Let your children not become slaves to it, rather use screen time as something that will serve not reward them.