“How much time do you allow your children”, “Is it really that bad?”, “I can’t get my son off the ipad!”. It’s the topic of our time when families get together, and a constant battle for many parents when trying to understand whether to treat the screen as a friend or an enemy. Is it naive to shelter them from a technology that will be an integral part of our kids’ lives for years to come? And how bad is all this screen time really? Conscious Parenting Training‘s Maguelonne Rousseau look at what the screen does to our brain, how it affects our kids and what we can do as parents to control the usage.
Can you guess what Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and many Silicon Valley parents have in common? Apart from the obvious – love of technology, they raise their children in a tech-free home and choose Montessori or Waldorf schools that don’t rely on new technology or teach coding skills at an early age.
Many parents wonder whether we should suppress the time our children use on screens or whether it can actually be beneficial if used adequately. We are also constantly asking, how long is acceptable? ..and when necessary, how do we get our kids to stop using the screen?
We live in a time that has recently seen dramatic innovations that have changed our daily lives and continue to do so. This partly makes answering those questions a difficult task. Nonetheless, it is necessary for parents to understand what happens to children when they are exposed to screens and what might be the potential risks so they can decide what is best for their family.
1. What happens in the brain when watching TV, playing video games, surfing the internet or spending time on social media?
Research shows that the effect of screen time on a brain is the production of a feel-good chemical called dopamine which releases instant pleasure. We all recognise this. How many times have we found ourselves spending too much time on social media or playing a game on our phone without realizing the time passing? We know we should stop but struggle to do so.
This is precisely what’s happening during screen time: the brain produce dopamine instantly, the chemical that will activate our reward system, telling us that this behaviour – watching TV, checking Facebook or playing game feels good and should be repeated over and over again. This repetitive behaviour that happens without proper control, is what we call addiction. We have all heard about the dangers of being addicted to alcohol, smoking and drugs, but we often don’t realize the dangers of being addicted to our screens.
2. How do over usage of screens affect our children?
Now that we understand what happens in the brain, we need to question what are the implications for a young brain still in development:
- One known effect is on the attention span: children watching a lot of TV at an early age often develop a low attention span, that can later be labelled as ADD, ADHD or hyperactivity. They simply cannot focus on one task for very long and require a lot of external entertainment. The constant movement of pictures, as well as the noise associated, tend to get the brain used to fast activities that are constantly changing. The consequence is that the brain doesn’t get the training needed in order to focus on one single task at a time, and the cognitive skills necessary to understand a problem and solving it, are not mobilized.
- Another side effect is that kids don’t learn to delay gratification because they get used to receiving dopamine the minute they switch on a screen, instead of understanding that pleasure can be associated with making an effort. This is an important life lesson, as when a child works hard on something, fails, tries again, and find different ways to make it work, the dopamine is still released, but here, the pleasure is associated with the effort, which helps children in delaying and deserving the pleasure they receive.
- Another well-known side effect – especially in Singapore and other developed countries where technology is an integral part of our everyday life – is the negative development of eyesight. The conjunction with screens being close to the face and radiating blue light, with the limited time spent outside and exposition to natural light, weaken the eye and inhibits a healthy development of the eye.
- If your child is not exposed to the whole spectrum of natural light, it can disturb natural biorhythms such as sleep cycles. Many adults and children lack sleep because of too much screen time, often too close to bedtime. Healthy sleep routines for child development are as important as food and adequate brain stimulation.
- Finally, something that is often overlooked is the effects of radiations (Wifi, Bluetooth, etc.) on the human body and brain. Some experts have expressed the potentially harmful effect of overexposure on your health, and that too much screen time could interfere with normal brain development.
3. What can we do to limit the screen usage for our kids?
Here are some guidelines for screen use for children:
– Babies and toddlers under 3 years old: avoid screens altogether as a general rule, and if the child is exposed, it should not be part of a regular routine. Use the screen less than 10 min at a time, and make sure the child is accompanied with an adult and only using an interactive screen (no TV)
– Between 3 to 6-year-old: maximum 20 min per session, accompanied by an adult and using an interactive screen (avoid TV preferably)
– Between 6 to 9-year-old: maximum 30 min per session, choosing TV programs and video games without violence.
– Between 9 to 12-year-old: prefer video games with others, and TV programs adapted to the age group. No social media or internet surfing without adult supervision.
– 12 years old and over: social media and internet surfing with adult supervision.