How much screen time is too much screen time? And everything else you need to know about screenplay
The World Health Organisation has released new guidelines recommending no screen time at all for children under two years and no more than one hour per day for children between the ages of two and four. Of course, banning screen time is easier said than done in a world that is entrenched in technology. What is a realistic balance of screen time versus other activities? How can you manage it if older children are permitted screen time? We take a look.
A young boy tucked up in bed touches his lips to the screen and kisses his grandma’s face goodnight. In the living room, twin pre-teens argue over what to watch on Stan, while their 14-year-old older sister monitors her heart rate on a smartwatch after a gruelling workout, courtesy of YouTube.
It’s an ever-changing world where technology is evolving at breakneck speed. And love it or loathe it, kids just can’t seem to get enough of it.
No matter what your thoughts are about technology, you must admit, some of it is pretty cool. Google can provide answers to those tricky homework questions that leave parents scratching their heads in frustration. Plonking a feisty preschooler in front of a screen is a distraction while mum cooks dinner. Allowing your teenage son to binge Netflix at home means at least you know where he is.
Teens and screens go hand in in hand
It’s probably no surprise to learn that teens are among the biggest technology users — with the most popular platforms being YouTube at 86 per cent, Facebook 75 per cent and Instagram 70 per cent, according to the government’s eSafety commissioner.
… with excessive screen time kids are also missing out on opportunities to socially engage; to learn to read human emotions and understand visual cues.
You’ll find many Gen Z kids scooping their phone out from under their pillow before their feet hit the floor in the morning, and checking social media is often the last thing they do at night. Young children are media savvy; as soon as their little fingers can grip a tablet, they’ll happily tune into their favourite shows. Kids as young as nine are putting a smartphone on their wish list for Santa.
For optimal health, the Australian 24-hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Young People recommend kids from birth to age two have no screen time. Then up to five years, a maximum of one hour a day, and kids five to 17 years no more than two hours of recreation screen time a day.
But crunch the numbers, and it’s significantly more. The Royal Children’s Hospital National Child Health Poll for screen time of 4000 children showed a daily average of 4.6 hours.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that gripped the world, those who saw technology as a villain had to tell worried parents to take a chill pill.
After all, technology was the starring conduit that allowed friends, families and work colleagues to stay connected. While the world floundered in the grip of tumultuous terror and uncertainly, we held tighter to our smartphones, scanning for updates, to see how our world was changing.
Technology sanctioned speedy dissemination of information to the masses, telehealth services provided remote medical aid, those in isolation at home used apps to learn new skills and access fitness programs. Children could still go to school via Zoom apps, and universities and businesses continued to forge ahead in uncertain times in the brave new world that was unfolding.
Now the immediate danger of coronavirus has lessened, are kids choosing app-based experiences to the detriment of face-to-face interaction with their peers? Many say the scales need to be tipped back in balance. Kids need to re-engage with each other, in the real world. But some kids (and adults) will still prefer to use screens, because in some ways it’s easier.
Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other says some people prefer communication via technology because “real” face-to-face conversations aren’t scripted, so they can be awkward.
“No matter what your child’s age, I encourage parents to be the pilot of the digital plane — not be a passenger.”
There is also concern that with more screen time kids are opting out of physical activity in favour of sedentary screen time. Lisa Vale, a paediatric occupational therapist, says there are valid reasons why parents should be worried. “It’s concerning because if play means predominantly pressing buttons, kids aren’t developing necessary gross and fine motor skills,” she says.
If young kids are using a tablet, Vale says parents need to put a stylus in their hand. “To be ready to write, kids need foundation fine motor skills, like grasp and release, then a dominant hand is developed,” she says. “Then in the preschool years those skills are refined by using things like scissors which are tools; a writing implement is another tool.”
Vale says natural play, sensory play, water play, sandpit play, play dough and even playing with food is important. “The hand is exposed to different sensations and textures, and motor patterns and skills are learned — developing these takes practice,” she says.
That’s only part of the story too. With excessive screen time kids are also missing out on opportunities to socially engage; to learn to read human emotions and understand visual cues.
Are screens “electronic cocaine”?
Fears that our foray into the world of technology will have insidious and dire consequences have existed for decades. There are those who liken digital technology to drugs, who claim we are turning our children into psychotic junkies. Dr Peter Whybrow, director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, has coined the term “electronic cocaine” because of the addictive effects of screens.
But it’s important to keep things in perspective. Among all the fearmongering, explains Dr Kristy Goodwin, who is a digital wellbeing and productivity researcher, is one simple fact. “Technology is just a tool. It’s neither good or bad — what matters is how you use it,” she says.
Many parents experience what Dr Goodwin calls “techno guilt”. “There’s moral panic around it because parents see lots of alarmist headlines around technology,” she says. “Parental angst also exists because we have no frame of reference — most of us had analogue childhoods.”
How does technology impact on a young brain?
Some researchers say technology impacts on the brain, especially the young. The brain has around 100 billion neurons, and neural connections called synapses. According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, in the first few years of life more than a million new neural connections form every second. These neural connections are important to development.
A 2019 American study in JAMA Pediatrics of 2441 mothers and children showed that children between two and three years with high levels of screen time experienced developmental delays. The authors also noted it was unclear if more screen time predicted poorer developmental performance, or more screen time was given to kids with challenging behaviours.
Another study showed baby mice exposed to six hours a day of video games, lights and sounds for three months showed behavioural differences and deficits in cognitive performance.
Facing up to adolescence
Adolescence is a tumultuous time; emotions are running rampant and peer acceptance weighs heavily into self-worth. Neuroscientist Associate Professor Sarah Whittle says there are two key brain systems that develop during adolescence. The first is the reward system. “It’s really amped up during this time, and one aspect of that is social reward,” she says. “Social media sites are designed to be addictive and teens are more prone to those addictive effects.”
The other developing brain system is emotional regulation. “It’s that animalistic part of the brain that responds to immediate threat — many teens have trouble controlling and modifying their emotional responses, and they’re likely to engage in riskier behaviour.”
So how does the interaction between teens and technology play out? And what are the implications? The reality is teens aren’t always going to make wise choices when it comes to technology, but the good news is parents can help to empower them to. The trick, according to Dr Goodwin, is to show teens the science behind the technology.
“I’m absolutely blown away sometimes by the sophisticated questions kids ask about the impact of technology on their wellbeing when I’m presenting at schools,” she says.
“Teachers are often also surprised when kids confess, ‘I can’t regulate my use on a gaming console or smartphone,’ and then I explain the mechanics of why.
“The online world is this bottomless hole, and teens lack the brain architecture to say OK, four hours on my gaming console is sufficient, I will turn it off,” she says.
Screens and bullying
First there was schoolyard bullying, but kids could escape their aggressors and flee to the safety of their family home. But with the global proliferation and ease of access to social media, bullies can reach their victims anywhere any time, while their peers look on, often in equal parts fascination and horror.
It’s no longer black eyes or bloodied noses that result from bullying; for many it’s shattered self-confidence, crushed dreams and life-changing consequences. Up to one in five children has experienced cyberbullying, according to Julie Inman Grant, the eSafety Commissioner. If that’s not shocking enough, the gravity of cyberbullying is. A study by Swansea University in the UK has shown cyberbullying makes young people more than twice as likely to self-harm or attempt suicide.
Screens impact on sleep hygiene
Growing bodies and minds need plenty of sleep. The Australasian Sleep Association recommendations preschoolers get 10 to 13 hours, six to 13-year-olds need nine to 11 hours, and the optimal for 14 to 17-year-olds is eight to 10 hours of snooze time.
So are kids getting enough? If your child’s a teenager, not by a long shot, according to the Growing Up in Australia longitudinal study. On school days, only 50 per cent of 16- to 17-year-olds are getting enough sleep.
Screens can continue to connect the lonely, the unwell and families and friends who live far apart. The key is to keep it in balance.
One of the culprits is technology, as kids delay sleep time in favour of social media. But getting them to switch off before bedtime can help. A 2018 sleep study by Adelaide’s Flinders University got adolescents to turn their phones off an hour before bedtime. On average they turned their lights out 17 minutes earlier — over the week they gained one hour and 45 minutes of extra sleep.
Dr Amy Reynolds, senior lecturer in psychology and spokesperson for the Sleep Health Foundation says it’s also important to create a healthy sleep environment. “Switch from interactive forms of communication like messaging and chatting on the phone to passive ones like reading e-books and listening to relaxing music,” she suggests.
Do you know what your kids are watching?
Modifying your child’s screen time begins with not only negotiating boundaries for usage but knowing what the kids are viewing.
Instead of setting hard and fast rules, change the narrative. Dr Goodwin says it’s important that parents remain firmly in the driver’s seat. “No matter what your child’s age, I encourage parents to be the pilot of the digital plane — not be a passenger,” she says.
Dr Goodwin says there are three factors to help parents establish a healthy relationship with their child and technology. “The first is setting boundaries, so know the digital playgrounds they are playing in and who they are playing with.” she says.
Next, ensure the technology isn’t interfering with your child’s basic needs such as getting active, and, as we have already discussed, getting enough sleep. The third factor is to let your child’s brain have a little downtime. “Young people need time for digital disconnection. Humans have Palaeolithic brains that were never designed to be switched on and processing information all the time.”
If you’re a slave to social media, it could also be time to rethink your own technology habits. Dr Reynolds says kids are always watching what their parents do and will mimic their behaviours. “We need to practise what we preach; kids will ask the question, ‘Why do I have to put my iPad away when you use yours all the time?’”
Post-COVID-19, screens have opened up a new world of possibilities for parents. Some platforms that were developed gave parents more tools to help their children with early learning. Many kids who struggled to learn in a traditional classroom setting could more easily grasp concepts with the vast array of integrative tools available with digital learning.
Screens can continue to connect the lonely, the unwell and families and friends who live far apart. The key is to keep it in balance. Moving forward, it seems inevitable that humans will use screens more, but that shouldn’t mean forgoing human connections. Reaching out skin to skin and cuddling someone, taking your child’s hand and going for a walk in the warm sweet sunshine … nothing can take the place of that.
Piloting your child’s digital footprint
- Get the kids tuning into podcasts instead of highly stimulating movies and YouTube clips before bed.
- Make spaces in the home technology-free — for example, the dinner table.
- Use parental controls with young children.
- Buy an alarm clock so your teen doesn’t rely on a smartphone for an alarm.
- Develop screen-free times such as before school.
- Let your kids know the reasons why you are limiting screen time.