Finding the balance between virtual reality and real life is key to avoiding the negative consequences of too much screen time, say experts. A recent study has highlighted serious concerns about the effect of screens on the bodies and brains of our children.
As Johannesburg-based occupational therapist Tamryn Paulsen explains, rushed family lifestyles, increased academic pressure and various other factors have led to a significant increase in our reliance on devices to keep our children entertained and distracted. This, combined with the negative effects of over-exposure to screens, is a potentially harmful combination.
So, with screens here to stay, what’s the best way to find a balance?
The body-brain connection
Studies on shifts in brain connectivity linked to time spent on screens have revealed worrying results, says Dr Walton, who holds doctorates in biopsychology and behavioural neuroscience.
Researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital found that reading was associated with more beneficial changes, while the opposite was true for screens, which showed, “poorer connectivity in areas that govern language and cognitive control”.Brain chemistry of children falling under the category of smartphone or internet addiction was also different from that of non-addicted kids.
Using tech devices is a form of “digital drug”, according to an explosive infographic compiled by whatisdryeye.com, and over-use could result in dry eye syndrome, computer vision syndrome (CVS) and near-sightedness.
“As an occupational therapist, I often see the negative consequences of excessive screen time on developing children,” says Tamryn. “There’s a significant increase in weaker or sensitive eyes, weak core muscles from decline in outdoor play and a noticeable decline in fine-motor skills.”
Many children choose screens first, but we should be encouraging tangible play to build bodies and minds, as this has an “enormous impact” on language, motor, social and emotional development.
Mind over matter
The emotional and mental consequences of too much screen and general media exposure is a problem too, says Tamryn. “I am seeing an increase in very young children who are accustomed to getting things their own way, immediately, and who genuinely have difficulty with emotional skills, such as controlling frustration, tolerance and delayed gratification.
“Interaction with technology − especially at a young age − results in a quick, engaged response, which is usually dramatically reinforced by sound, colour and visual excitement. Real-world play requires intrinsic motivation – where the child is motivated to move, use his senses, adjust to the physical environment and engage in trial-and-error behaviour that may, or may not, result in success. Virtual play often provides a platform where the primary requirement is to ‘plug and play’. For a young, developing toddler who needs to learn cause and effect over the physical environment, this may hinder their intrinsic motivation and emotional development.”
Getting the balance right
There’s no denying kids learn from technology, particularly educational games, so what’s a good balance to strike?
“There’s no limit to the number of hours a child should be playing, but there is a limit to how much screen time he has,” advises Tamryn. She recommends parents consider the following updated findings released by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2016.
- Before 18 months: No screen time, apart from face-to-face chatting over an electronic device.
- 18 to 24 months: Less than 60 minutes of screen time daily. Age-appropriate apps should encourage concept formation, such as colours, animals, numbers, counting and alphabets. This should be followed by “real world” learning.
- From two years old, limit screen time to between one and two hours per day. Avoid screens as a primary activity and try use them only after other activities, like real-world play, exercise, social interaction with peers or family and daily activities.
- Avoid all screens at least an hour before bed.
The modern parenting dilemma
Why are so many of us battling to get our kids back to basics – to the outdoors-based, imagination-rich childhood we had? “Technology is accessible, affordable, convenient and keeps kids entertained for hours,” explains Tamryn. “In addition, our lifestyles are constantly on the go and demanding. In many families, both parents work or the parent is a single working mom. Play is time-consuming in that parents have to play the role of “supervisor” and “playmate” and be fully engaged. After a long day at work, running a home and caring for kids, it’s not surprising many families turn to screen time.
“But, while smart technology is fantastic for building cognitive and technological skills, real play is vital – and research shows we need to make a lifestyle change now.”
Screen limit tips and tricks
Unlocking your child’s innate genius in age-appropriate ways has the useful knock-on effect of weaning them off screens, too.
Andrew suggests these ideas to stimulate your toddler or preschooler in the real world:
- Allow lots of free play
- Group simple shapes and colours
- Read aloud
- Conduct a “running commentary” in adult language about what you are doing
- Count anything, like toes, trees, ears and dogs
- Identify letters of the alphabet in everyday life
- Create cloth scrapbooks
- Encourage the use of all senses.
Tamryn explains changes and pressures in modern family lifestyles have limited our childrens’ opportunities to play and opened the door for increased use of technology. “I am all for screen time being used in appropriate doses to provide meaningful and empowering learning experiences, but balancing physical and virtual learning is key.”
If you’re trying to set limits, here’s how to start:
- Avoid screen time as a reward
- Have an alternative to screens ready and prepared – a game, craft or similar activity
- Reward your child for exploring other play alternatives
- Set a limit on screens and stick to it by building it into your routine
- For younger children, set a timer
- Don’t allow your child to sit too close to the screen, check that there is enough lighting in the room and correct his body posture – no slouching or straining the neck.
The bottom line
Australian clinical psychologist and education expert Andrew Fuller says the world has experienced a dramatic shift since our childhoods. A world without electronic connectivity, social media and the internet is “simply unimaginable” for many children, he explains in his book, Unlocking Your Child’s Genius.
“The change to a computerised world has brought much that is positive, as well as some problems that are toxic. It gives our children access to vast amounts of information, but also risks creating entertained, passive viewers, rather than participants in life. Our task is to help our children capitalise on the positive aspects of the new world, while protecting them from the negative.”