How much screen time is too much for kids? It’s com­pli­cated

Par­ents have been ad­vised to limit me­dia con­sump­tion, but re­search sug­gests it’s the nature of it that mat­ters

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - Weekend|Health -

FOR many par­ents in the digital age, bat­tles over screen time and de­vices have be­come a de­press­ing part of fam­ily life, and know­ing how much is too much has be­come a mov­ing tar­get.

Whether it’s three-year-olds throw­ing tantrums when the ipad is taken away, seven-year-olds watch­ing Youtube all night, nine-year-olds de­mand­ing their own phones, 11-year-olds nag­ging to play 18-rated video games that “all their friends” are, or 14-year-olds who are never off In­sta­gram, ev­ery stage of child­hood and ado­les­cence is now ac­com­pa­nied by its own de­light­ful new par­ent­ing chal­lenges.

Up un­til a few years ago par­ent­ing ad­vice cen­tred around the con­cept of “screen time” quo­tas with a Goldilocks-style sweet spot of two or so hours of screens a day, be­yond which me­dia use could be­come harm­ful.

The Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atrics (AAP) still rec­om­mends a max­i­mum of one hour of “high-qual­ity pro­gram­ming” for chil­dren un­der 6, but there­after sim­ply en­cour­ages par­ents to “place con­sis­tent lim­its on the time spent us­ing me­dia” and des­ig­nate screen-free time as a fam­ily.

It’s un­clear whether that means four hours play­ing a video game on a Sun­day is okay, or whether it is better to have three 20-minute ses­sions with the ipad than one hour-long ses­sion. Is it re­ally that bad if my 18-month-old watches a cou­ple of episodes of the Twirly­woos be­fore din­ner?

Many par­ents will be re­lieved to hear that re­cent re­search sug­gests that it’s not so much the length, but the nature of the screen time that mat­ters. Whether it’s pas­sive TV or social me­dia mon­i­tor­ing, ac­tive video game play­ing, so­cial­is­ing with What­sapp, or get­ting cre­ative in imovie.

Jo­ce­lyn Brewer, a psy­chol­o­gist who spe­cialises in the con­cept of “digital nu­tri­tion”, likens me­dia di­ets to what’s on our plates: rather than count­ing calo­ries (or screen time), think about what you’re eat­ing.

“It’s not just about whether you con­sume any po­ten­tial digital junk foods, but also your re­la­tion­ship to tech­nol­ogy and the role it plays in your fam­ily life,” says Brewer. “We know that us­ing screens to soothe or pacify kids sets up some con­cern­ing pat­terns of re­ly­ing on de­vices to calm or dis­tract a child (or teen, or adult) from their ex­pe­ri­ence of un­pleas­ant or un­com­fort­able emo­tions – so we want to avoid us­ing screens to pla­cate tantrums, just like we want to avoid eat­ing ‘treats’ to calm emo­tional storms.”

For young chil­dren, the most im­por­tant thing is whether par­ents and kids are play­ing, watch­ing or brows­ing to­gether.

A study of 20,000 par­ents pub­lished late last year by the Ox­ford In­ter­net In­sti­tute and Cardiff Univer­sity de­ter­mined that there was no cor­re­la­tion be­tween lim­it­ing de­vice use and chil­dren’s well­be­ing. The study’s lead au­thor Dr Andrew Pryzbyl­ski said: “Our find­ings sug­gest the broader fam­ily con­text, how par­ents set rules about digital screen time, and if they’re ac­tively en­gaged in ex­plor­ing the digital world to­gether, are more im­por­tant than the raw screen time.”

An­other study from De­cem­ber by the Univer­sity of Michi­gan on peo­ple aged four to 11 sim­i­larly found that “how chil­dren use the de­vices, not how much time they spend on them, is the strong­est pre­dic­tor of emo­tional or social prob­lems con­nected with screen ad­dic­tion”. But the au­thors said that con­cern over a child’s screen use is war­ranted when it leads to poor be­hav­iour, loss of in­ter­est in other ac­tiv­i­ties, fam­ily or social life, with­drawal, or de­cep­tion.

Most re­search agrees that al­though spe­cific screen time lim­its are dated, there does come a point where ex­ces­sive de­vice use has neg­a­tive im­pacts, af­fect­ing sleep, health and mood. One study from Jan­uary found that “ado­les­cents spend­ing a small amount of time on elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tion were the hap­pi­est”, though its sug­ges­tion of one hour of daily screen time for teenagers is laugh­able to any­one try­ing to par­ent one.

Talk about kids and tech­nol­ogy usu­ally tends towards the neg­a­tive, but it doesn’t have to be so. The in­ter­net and video games can be fun, social and pro­vide a new cre­ative out­let for chil­dren. “Ev­i­dence-based ben­e­fits iden­ti­fied from the use of digital and social me­dia in­clude early learn­ing, ex­po­sure to new ideas and knowl­edge, in­creased op­por­tu­ni­ties for social con­tact and sup­port,” says the AAP.

The con­sen­sus is that screen time, in and of it­self, is not harm­ful – and rea­son­able restric­tions vary greatly, depend­ing on a child’s be­hav­iour and per­son­al­ity. There is lit­tle point in ob­sess­ing over how many min­utes a day your kids are spend­ing with screens. In­stead, par­ents should be do­ing what they can to en­sure that what they’re watch­ing, play­ing and read­ing is high-qual­ity, age-appropriate and safe – and join­ing in wherever pos­si­ble.

“It’s im­por­tant there is bal­ance in the on­line and off­line worlds and in leisure and learn­ing, but what that looks like for dif­fer­ent kids at dif­fer­ent ages and in dif­fer­ent fam­i­lies is hard to ‘pre­scribe’,” says Brewer. “Re­search shows that not hav­ing ac­cess to the digital world has a neg­a­tive im­pact on kids – so its about find­ing the right amount with a holis­tic ap­proach.”

Photo: The Guardian

Qual­ity not quan­tity … rather than count­ing screen time, think about what you’re con­sum­ing.

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