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ur children now grow up connected from a very young age. Even as toddlers, most intuitively know how to use a touchscreen. Technology and connectivity are part of the fabric of their lives.
But, experts warn that children - and adults - must control the time they spend ‘plugged in’ as too much time online, or staring at a screen, can cause a range of physical and psychological health issues.
Writing in Psychology Today recently, Dr Victoria L Dunckley quoted extensive studies on teenagers and time spent on tech. Her summary was concerning.
“Excessive screen time appears to impair brain structure and function. Much of the damage occurs in the brain’s frontal lobe, which undergoes massive changes from puberty until the mid-twenties. Frontal lobe development, largely determines success in every area of life - from academic or career success to relationship skills.”
Meanwhile, numerous studies have found that compulsive internet use interferes with a child’s schoolwork and personal relationships, while over-use of devices like iPads at a young age can harm brain development and cause back issues. It’s enough to make you want to put your child on tech lockdown.
Of course, that’s not realistic, and nor does it take into account the myriad benefits of technology, particularly in terms of education. But time ‘on-screen’ does need to be managed at all stages of child development.
The American Academy of Paediatrics advises against technology use by children younger than two years old and recommends limiting older children’s screen time to no more than one or two hours a day. Part of this time should be for educational purposes, rather than just playing games or watching videos.
Alan Williamson, Principal at Kings’ School Al Barsha, believes achieving the right balance is something that schools and parents can work on together. Technology in education is useful and exciting, he says, but should not be the only focus.
“There is a place for technology but not all of the time,” he says. “At Kings’, we work on finding the correct balance between using technology and using paper and pens. We would encourage parents to find that same balance in the home.
“Sometimes students will need to use technology in their homework and it will benefit their learning, but sometimes the traditional pen and paper still has value.”
Managing that balance in the home requires communication and boundaries.
“Talk to your kids about everything and set boundaries from an early age,” advises cyber safety expert Susan McLean.
Set rules on tech time and encourage other activities that get your child to move and be outside. You also need to limit access to screens. “Make sure that there is no internetenabled technology in the bedroom at night,” Susan urges. “For two reasons: One, they won’t sleep. They will wake up and check their phones and you won’t know how much time they are spending doing that. Two, they will suffer from over-stimulated brain. The screen on an iPad, iPhone or computer is different from a television and can mess with a child’s brain differently.” What Susan is referring to is what scientists describe as “short-wavelengthenriched” light from these devices, which means they emit more blue light than natural light. That blue light inhibits the production of the hormone melatonin, which helps us to fall asleep. Researchers in Norway, who studied 10,000 16 to 19-year-olds, advised that children should ‘switch off’ at least an hour before going to bed after their study showed that the longer a young person spent looking at a screen before going to bed, the worse quality sleep they had. Susan says this is where setting a good example is really important. “If you are explaining to your teenager why they can’t be using WhatsApp last thing at night, you’d better make sure you’re not doing so either,” she says. “If you tell your children to put their devices out of the bedroom at night, then that means you follow suit. Don’t sleep with your phone under your pillow and tell your kids they can’t.”