The World Health Organization (WHO), an agency of the United Nations that focuses on public health, has recently published it’s first-ever recommendations on physical activities for the under-fives, which include guidelines on the screen times. It took a global panel of WHO experts 2.5 years to review all available evidence and develop these recommendations. They concluded that there is evidence of detrimental effects of screen times in early years. WHO recommends no screen time whatsoever for babies between 0 and 1, and minimising it for under-twos. As children get a little older and start using technology for learning, interaction and recreation, WHO recommends no more than 1 hour per day for children between the ages of 2 and 5. The experts also emphasise that screen time should encourage activity and interaction; whereas the passive watching, where the technology is being used to occupy a child while parents get on with something else, is detrimental to the child’s development and health, and needs to be restricted as far as possible.
These recommendations are very new, but the understanding is rather old. When Steve Jobs was still running Apple and his company just launched their first iPad, he was asked whether his children love it. “They haven’t used it,” he replied, “we limit how much technology our children use at home.” At the time, his reply stunned the audience who were sure that the Jobs’s household was full of touch screens, iPads and iPods. It transpired later that many technology chief executives strictly limit their children’s screen time, often banning all gadgets on school nights, and allocating ascetic time limits on weekends. The former editor of ‘Wired’ Chris Anderson once explained that he does it because he had seen the dangers of technology firsthand, he’s seen it in himself, and doesn’t want it to happen to his children. The dangers he is referring to include exposure to harmful content like pornography, bullying from other children, and worst of all, becoming addicted to devices, just like their parents. It also includes harmful effects on children’s health, including their vision, posture, language and social skills. Studies also link screen times with overeating, less physical activity and changes in brain function.
So how much technology is the proper boundary for children? According to experts, it is best to set it by age. Children under 10 seem to be most susceptible to becoming addicted, and it is wise for parents to ban any gadgets during the week. On weekends, the limit is between 30 min and two hours on iPad and smartphone. 10-14 year olds are allowed to use computers on school nights, but only for homework. Some parents also forbid teenagers from using social networks, except services like Snapchat, which deletes messages after they’ve been sent. This way they don’t have to worry about saying something online that will haunt them later in life. Other parents have a strict ‘no screens in the bedroom’ rule. Or draw a strong distinction between time spent ‘consuming’, like watching YouTube or playing video games – and time spent ‘creating’ on screens.
When it comes to screen times, moderation is the key, especially since excessive use can compromise your child’s health. Here are some strategies how to establish a healthy balance around screen times.
- Engaging children in other types of play or activities, not only with a tablet or television. Board games offer great opportunities to communicate, talk and joke as you play. Reading together is also a great bonding activity. When you read a book, you can point to pictures, ask questions and discuss the story’s message. All of these interactions are important for brain stimulation and development and will strengthen your bond with your child.
- Get creative. If your children still want to play on screens, encourage them to select activities that stimulate their brain, such as creating movies, drawing, working on photos creatively or designing an app or a game. There are many amazing creative pursuits they can do on a computer besides just homework, checking social media and watching YouTube!
- Devise a digital timetable. Introduce a 2-hour limit for screen time. Whether they are watching TV, texting on the phone or playing educational games, they shouldn’t be using screens for more than 2 hours a day. If they want to go over the time, it will come off their next allotted time. Stick to it.
- Focus on games and apps which encourage children to be active. It’s the passive time on screens that WHO objects too the most. Encourage your child to choose games and apps which have a physical component – games like tennis or bowling for example require movement to play. They are also interactive
- Rediscover the real world that exists beyond the pixels. Expose your children to new experiences. Take them to a museum, the zoo, or on a long walk in the park. Teach them rollerblading or archery, cut out and assemble paper models. Or sit with them to write a story together. The best learning takes place in interaction.
- Act as a role model It’s easy to forget the frequency with which we check our phones, but our children could be mirroring our behaviour. Try to create a place in your home to keep mobile phones and only choose to go there if you need to use it purposefully
- Act It is important that you have conversations with your children around the health issues of too much screen time. But when all is said and done, you may have to stop the reasoning, the pleading, the shouting and the threats, and simply set your rules and consequences for breaking them, in a planned and methodical way. Ultimately, you are the parent, the provider, and you have to be the boss.
Remember: screen time limits are about teaching your children to take responsibility for their own devices and screen time so that they have a balanced, successful life. By the way, would you like to know what did Steve Jobs’s children do instead of using the gadgets he built? Every evening Steve Jobs made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and other cultural topics. No one ever pulled out an iPad or computer, his children did not seem addicted at all to devices. Perhaps not such a bad role-model to follow?!