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Parents know instinctively that they shouldn’t allow inanimate objects to fill their child’s schedule. Kids need to run and play and create. They need to breathe in fresh air and exercise their muscles. They need unstructured play time in which to make up games and live out their fantasies.

But, screens are here to stay. They are a part of daily life and will be in ever-changing ways in the future. And video games, movies and even educational online material are very seductive to our little ones. They will happily spend all day using them in one form or another, foregoing the more active choices such as playing out of doors.

And now, during the pandemic, vast numbers of our children are receiving their education online. They are spending even more hours in front of a screen. Should we be worried? 

First, let’s look at the positive outcomes of screen time.

  • There is quality educational material available in many, many places.
  • Screen time is engaging, kids love the colour, the action and the entertainment value.
  • Screen time causes kids to stay put in one place and tends to draw them in so they are content and quiet.
  • When used properly, children can learn just about any subject matter on educational sites.
  • Online lessons, games and activities can enrich learning.

It’s true. All the facts and understandings we used to present to kids verbally or with pictures and books, can now be called up with a few clicks of a keyboard. Want to learn about gorillas in the wild? Just search a few minutes and then watch a video of them in full colour. 

Does your child need support in mathematics? Just search out lessons at the appropriate level and you’ll find all the math games and activities you need at your fingertips. And the kids enjoy doing it.

Why Worry?

If computers and other screens are so wonderful, why do experts worry that our kids are using them too much? Well, there are good reasons for parents to monitor and manage screen time. Here are some of the concerns:

  • When children don’t exercise, they become obese
  • Many children display sleep disturbances due to overuse of screens.
  • Early Childhood experts point to excessive screen use as catalysts for behaviour problems such as aggression and impatience.
  • The more hours spent in passive play, the less spent in healthy, active play.
  • Some studies have linked screen time with inability to focus attention in other learning situations.
  • Excessive screen use in toddlers is linked with delayed speech.
  • Some studies suggest that excessive screen time delays academic performance overall.
  • In older children excessive screen time is linked to depression and suicide.

Setting Realistic Expectations

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that all screens be turned off thirty minutes before bedtime and that television, computers and other screens not be allowed in children’s bedrooms.

Common sense would tell us that long hours spent in front of a screen, no matter the activity, isn’t ideal for growing children. But how much is right for your children? Check out this link to The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Family Media Plan. Use it to help you arrive at meaningful guidelines for screen use in your home.

Most experts agree on general guidelines for screen use in young children:

  • For children younger than 18 months, no screen time at all. Babies and toddlers are much better able to learn and grow with adequate physical play time, plenty of sleep and quiet read aloud times with adults.
  • For 18-24 month olds it is also recommended to refrain from screen time. However an occasional quality viewing time with adults is allowed.
  • For 2-5 year olds one hour of high-quality educational programming is suggested.
  • For school-aged children the amount of screen time increases to several hours per day, provided the content is good.

You may have noticed that no one believes it’s a good idea for children to spend long hours playing video games or using screens for entertainment. And most families realise their children are too attached to their screens and are spending more time with them than is healthy.

Parents, you can be role models for screen use as you make room for family conversations and play times free of devices. You should also make sure to preview games, apps, and any website your children are using. There are many sites inappropriate for children and even dangerous. Be sure to use parental controls to block unsuitable sites and supervise your children as they use their screens.

Other helpful rules may include:

  1. Prioritising unplugged, unstructured playtimes daily
  2. Creating screen-free family times such as meal times or family game nights
  3. Enforcing daily limits and curfews such as no screen time before bed
  4. Managing screen time used during homework sessions
  5. Charging devices outside of the bedroom at night
  6. Eliminating background TV noise
  7. Teaching your children online safety rules such as maintaining privacy and avoiding predatory sites.

No, it won’t be easy to manage screen time for your family. But it is necessary. Whenever you feel that the screens are doing the parenting, it’s time to step back and re-evaluate. We live in an amazing time of information at our fingertips. Let’s be sure to maintain a healthy balance in our family’s daily lives.