Screen Time: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Published on: March 12, 2019

Digital play can be handy for developing a number of skills. But how can we establish a system at home for using digital technology, so that we can use it without being used by it?

By Francine Kaye Acelar

As a parent in the digital age, you’re probably already aware of the news about the negative effects of screen time on children. The science behind it is convincing. In December 2018, an ongoing study from the US National Institute of Health[1] showed that nine- to ten-year-old children who spend more than seven hours a day using gadgets display thinning of the cortex, the part of the brain that processes sensory information.

This same study has also reported that children who spent more than two hours a day on screens score lower on language and reasoning tests. Although the research has limitations as it requires several years for the experts to understand long-term outcomes, this is making the experts anxious.

Another study published by The Lancet in September 2018[2] shows that even if kids meet the physical activity recommendation of sixty minutes per day, there is no beneficial effect on cognitive function if they also spend more than two hours per day on screen time or get less than nine hours of sleep per night. Quite simply, this means that too much screen time and not enough sleep can override the benefits of physical activity.

Even Silicon Valley parents agree…

There is a new type of high-level-executive Silicon-Valley parents who limit and sometimes ban screen time for their children. These are the same adults who have seen firsthand the work that goes behind a gadget or app in making them irresistible to put down.

These low- and anti-technology parents are simply following longstanding practices among Silicon Valley moguls. In 2007, Bill Gates capped his daughter’s screen time and ultimately prohibited his kids from having their own phones until they were fourteen. Steve Jobs revealed in a 2011 interview that he did not let his kids use the then-newly released iPad. Current Apple CEO, Tim Cook, said in January 2018 that he prohibited his nephew from joining online social networks.

So what do the experts recommend

In October 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)[3] published new guidelines to help modern families maintain a healthy media diet. They also have an online tool (go to: healthychildren.org/english/media) that allows parents to design their own media use planner.

The AAP recommends:

  • No media use for children less than eighteen months, except for video chatting with adults.
  • Less than one hour of high-quality programming for children eighteen months to two years of age, with parents co-viewing.
  • One hour of high-quality programming only for children two to five years old, with parents co-viewing and explaining real-world implications.
  • Consistent limits on children six years and older and maintaining balance with adequate sleep, physical activity, and other beneficial activities.
  • Designate media-free time and locations at home.
  • Continuous talks about online safety and courtesy.

Establishing a system at home

Setting limits and boundaries and sticking to it can be easier said than done. But here are expert- and parent-tested strategies that you can adopt in your home.

1. Setting a schedule

Sometimes, screen time just really is inevitable. That is when this strategy comes in. Parents can let kids use their gadgets or watch the TV for thirty minutes while they shower and another thirty minutes in the evening while preparing dinner. The trick is to be consistent and not to negotiate. This works especially well for younger kids who depend on a routine.

2. Choosing a binge day

One day on the weekend when kids can binge-watch liberally makes the routine predictable and impresses upon them to not even ask on other days. But parents also need to choose high-quality programming. This is especially relevant for young school kids who don’t need to use technology for homework or to stay in touch yet.

3. Justifying screen time

Asking “why?” every time older kids ask for their gadgets or the TV is a great opportunity to talk about screen time and to recommend other activities if they’re simply bored. The key is not to demonize their use. Being open and showing interest as to why they need to pass a certain level in Fortnite Battle Royale makes it easier for you to talk about uncomfortable digital life later on. 

4. Monitoring their use

Parents can download an app to monitor digital use by older kids. There are many parental control and screen time-tracking apps out there. The key is to involve kids in making decisions as to time limits and which apps are acceptable. Some of the apps available today are:

  • Qustodio – The free version gives you time schedules and a blocker for unsuitable content. The paid version gives you SMS monitoring, social media controls, and per-app controls. It can be used on multiple platforms such as Mac, Android, iOS, Kindle, and Nook.
  • OpenDNS Family Shield – This takes screen-time monitoring to a different level. This free service blocks domains with questionable content at the router level. Although the setup is quite tricky, it removes the need to install software on devices one by one.
  • KidLogger – If you want to ‘listen in’ on kids’ messages, the premium version of KidLogger monitors Skype chats, keystrokes, screengrabs, and websites visited. Available on Android and iOS, this software allows you to customize the monitors to allow for privacy for older children or those who are more responsible online.  
  • Kiddle – Google’s visual search engine for kids, thus the name. Despite the safe search feature on Google, there’s sometimes still no stopping unsuitable content. Kiddle is especially ideal for researching for homework. Although it requires active supervision and includes ads, the search results are hand picked by Google staff for kid-friendly relevance.

It’s not all bad, is it?

We live in the digital age and digital play may come in handy in developing memory, hand-eye coordination, planning skills, and other skills. But like all things in life, there should be balance and moderation. Digital play should work together with social, physical, creative, and unstructured play.

So how much screen time should we allow our kids then? Although science is still figuring it out, it’s good to keep ourselves up to date with research and modify our strategies accordingly. We need to trust our gut with what it says about the effects of screen time. Technology is good and it’s a helpful tool that we can use. Not something that uses us.  

Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash.

References

1 Naftulin, Julla (2018, Dec 10), “The first long-term study on how screen time affects children’s brains suggests more than 2 hours a day could do damage”, Insider.

2 Walsh, J.J., et al. (2018, Sep 26), “Associations between 24 hour movement behaviours and global cognition in US children: A cross-sectional observational study”, The Lancet.

3 The American Academy of Pediatrics (2016, Oct 21), “American Academy of Pediatrics announces new recommendations for children’s media use”.

About the Author

Francine is from the Philippines and is a mom to two girls, 14 and four. When not too busy writing technology articles and website content, she is out photographing beautiful pregnant mommas, cute newborn babies, and lovely families. The extra .025 seconds in her day is allotted to finding the answer to little humans’ centuries-old question ‘But why?’


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