As a parent of the digital age, it seems like the goal posts for screen time for children are always on the move.
While I love its convenience and the freedom it offers, I am terrified of its power to consume hours of your day.
It didn’t surprise me that a recent study found that we check our phones every 12 minutes. I check my phone more regularly than I should. I aimlessly scroll from app to app for no reason at all. Most of the time I’m doing research for my next article or replying to client emails.
We have a complicated relationship with screen time. It offers a welcome distraction while I get on with housework or when we are out for a meal. At the same time, I worry about how too much TV or screen time will affect my children’s development.
Before kids, I swore I wouldn’t be one of those parents who ignored their kids and left them with an iPad. However, it was my 80-year-old granddad who said to me that we can’t work against technology, we have to embrace it. While some aspects of technology are unfavourable, there will always be something new on the horizon that we will need to get used to.
I think what bothers me about iPhones and tablets, is the lack of transparency. When my mum or dad needed to phone someone, I saw them get out the phone book and look for a number. Now we look at our phone. If I want to find something to eat for tea, I search Google rather than reach for the recipe book. If I want to catch up on the news, I look at the news app instead of reading a newspaper.
So while I may only be engaging in a couple of rather mundane tasks, all my kids see is me staring at my phone. To be so absorbed by technology has become the norm for them and I worry whether this will stifle their ability to entertain themselves in a screen-free environment.
Screen Time Guidelines
When it comes to screen time guidelines, it turns out they aren’t as set in stone as we realise.
The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) proposes a limit of 1-2 hours a day of screen time as good for the psychological wellbeing of children.
A study into screen time was undertaken by the University of Oxford. Researchers used data from approximately 20,000 interviews with parents, which assessed the relationship between their child’s technology use and wellbeing.
Results found that limiting use is not necessarily beneficial for their wellbeing. However, in children aged 2-5 years old, whose use of technology was limited, showed slightly higher levels of resilience.
Lead author Dr Andrew Pryzbylski, of the Oxford Internet Institute, said: “Taken together, our findings suggest that there is little or no support for the theory that digital screen use, on its own, is bad for young children’s psychological wellbeing.
“If anything, 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.”
“Future research should focus on how using digital devices with parents or care-givers and turning it into a social time can effect children’s psychological wellbeing, curiosity, and the bonds with the caregiver involved.”
Out of Date Research
The guidelines were originally put in place before digital devices had become so ingrained in our lives.
So with that in mind, it’s becoming harder to implement the guidelines originally set by the APP.
Co-author Dr Netta Weinstein, a senior lecturer in psychology at Cardiff University, said: ‘Given that we cannot put the digital genie back in the bottle, it is incumbent on researchers to conduct rigorous, up-to-date research that identifies mechanisms by and the extent to which screen-time exposure might affect children.
Pryzbylski adds in conclusion: ‘To be robust, current recommendations may need to be re-evaluated and given additional consideration before we can confidently recommend that these digital screen-time limits are good for young children’s mental health and wellbeing’.
Digital Devices Before Bedtime
As a rule, I don’t allow my eldest to play with the iPad at least an hour before bedtime. I had some vague idea that ‘blue light’ is a sleep saboteur and that digital devices should be avoided 2-3 hours before bed.
While I’m pretty good at making sure my kids don’t use the iPad in the hours leading up to bedtime, I’m not so good at doing so myself.
In a study published in the journal Paediatrics, children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the effects of blue light.
Of more than five dozen studies looking at children aged between 5 and 17 years old, 90 percent found that more screen time is associated with delayed bedtimes, fewer hours sleep and poorer sleep quality.
The fact that their eyes are not fully developed plays a huge role in this. The paper states that children are more sensitive to the impact of the light than adults.
Blue light is found to suppress the level of melatonin – the important hormone responsible for regulating your sleep and wakefulness.
“The vast majority of studies find that kids and teens who consume more screen-based media are more likely to experience sleep disruption,” says first author Monique LeBourgeois, an associate professor in the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder. “With this paper, we wanted to go one step further by reviewing the studies that also point to the reasons why digital media adversely affects sleep.”
“Through the young eyes of a child, exposure to a bright blue screen in the hours before bedtime is the perfect storm for both sleep and circadian disruption,” LeBourgeois says.
Has It Changed How I Parent?
I often wonder why I have such a problem with technology playing a big part in my children’s upbringing.
Is it really such a bad thing? Is the problem with the technology or am I the problem? I dare say it’s the latter.
While technology such as iPads can be addictive, they are a useful tool for educational purposes and keeping in touch with family. When visiting my family at the weekend, my 4-year-old bid them farewell and said ‘don’t worry, I’ll FaceTime you tomorrow.’
Family members feel instantly closer thanks to technology. Relatives who live far apart can see grandchildren grow and engage with them using video calling. While FaceTime will never replace face-to-face, it’s a wonderful substitute.
Then there are those random questions kids come up with, the answer is always at your fingertips. Jack wanted to know what noise a zebra makes – the answer was found in minutes on YouTube. The children enjoy watching snippets from David Attenborough documentaries. They marvel at rocket launches and have learned the name of every planet in the solar system.
The instant access to videos and information is wonderful and educational. But I worry that the culture of instant gratification will impact my children’s ability to wait for anything. There’s no searching for the answers. It’s all laid out there in front of them for the taking.
I’m guilty of this too. It’s the little things. Watching TV, a familiar face pops up on the screen. Before phones, we’d sit there deciphering exactly where we knew the face from.
‘Oh you know…she was in that film, you know the one with Hugh Grant in’
‘About the guy who works in a bookshop and falls in love with a film star.’
‘That’s the one. The love interest, what’s her name?’
These days I’d quietly look at my phone and find the answer by searching Hugh Grant films.
Time for a Digital Detox?
With all that’s said and done, I won’t ban my children from using iPads or any other tablet devices.
The world we live in demands us to be tech-savvy and I’m sure this will only grow. But it’s important to know when to switch off and when enough is enough.
I like the idea of curbing my iPhone habit by buying a ‘dumbphone’ which allows the user to makes calls, send texts. We are all becoming a bit more aware of how addictive certain types of technology is. We are enslaved by the pull of the iPhone.
Sales of dumbphones have increased 5 percent last year. And this summer a study found that four in 10 families have looked into limiting their gadget use as they feel they don’t spend enough time together.
Nothing should replace time spent reading a book, getting fresh air or playing with good old fashioned toys. We need to be more mindful and aware that while technology holds nearly all the answers, it’s sometimes better to seek them out yourself.
I wrote about the importance of being bored and this applies to adults too. All often eliminate my boredom with my phone rather than engaging with the world around me.
As the children grow up they will have access to more news outlets. They will question what they read and fact check when they suspect what they’ve read is sensationalised or ‘fake news’.
They have the tools to be culturally and politically more aware than I ever was in my teens. But at the same time, my teens were spent experiencing life more than perhaps I would have if I’d have spent more time looking at a device.
Gadgets are not to get in the way of family life – no phones at the dinner table. It all starts with us as parents and we must practice what we preach.
I’m hoping that I’ll be able to teach my children how to use technology safely and responsibly. It’s here to stay and all I can do is help them navigate the minefield of our digital age.
How do you feel about your children using technology?