Children today live in the age of the screen. If they are not watching programmes on the TV, they are using a tablet or mobile phone to play games or look up videos. Look around the next time you are out for a meal and see how many of the children on the other tables have their heads buried in one mobile device or another (including your own!). Parents also oftentimes find themselves pushing tablet into the hands of their little ones to keep them quiet, especially when there are chores to be done.
We cannot escape the screen. That much is obvious. Perhaps the question that needs to be asked instead is how we as parents can find the balance between mobile device usage and free play, to cultivate a family life enhanced, instead of diminished, by technology.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that children are now spending seven hours every day consuming entertainment media on televisions, computers, game consoles and phones. Indeed, as entrenched as it is, removing mobile devices from your child’s life will be almost impossible but what we parents can do is set the programming. What if the seven hours a day is made up of carefully-selected family-friendly media consumption that includes a documentary about space exploration, a favourite feature-length animated movie and some screen time with the tablet playing puzzle games or using drawing or music-making apps? This kind of activity can still stimulate the brain in a positive way while helping kids develop skills, such as hand-eye coordination and problem-solving, and encouraging a healthy curiosity about the world around us.
The key, of course, is parental involvement. Parents need to be aware of what their children are watching or doing on the mobile device. Plan your children’s media time, setting a schedule to watch certain programmes instead of merely channel-surfing or allocate a certain amount of time to playing interactive games on the tablet. As much as you can, watch TV together and engage your children in discussions about what takes place. If done properly, screen time can become a much-cherished family activity that everyone can enjoy.
With the ubiquity of mobile devices in the home and the accessibility of the Internet, parenting needs to dictate screen time and not the other way around. It is so easy to just hand the tablet to your child so you can put a load in the washing machine but this makes the mobile device a crutch and time-waster instead of an instrument of learning. Indeed, at times it is parents themselves who need the discipline instead of the child!
Setting up no-screen zones, such as the bedroom or dining table, ensures that the mobile device does not disrupt family time or hinder the cultivation of proper lifestyle habits. It also prevents your child from becoming dependent of external sources for entertainment, which can inhibit the development of his or her creativity and imagination. Parents can take it one step further by leaving the tablet at home when out for the day, firmly showing your children that the mobile device is a tool and not a member of the family.
Limiting the amount of time your child spends in front of the TV or hunched over a mobile device in a single sitting is also a good step to take. Encourage them to take frequent breaks from the screen to have a snack or play in the garden, thus activating different parts of the brain and, again, reducing their dependency on a device to pass the time.
Taking care of the body
The increase of screen time in children’s lives is accompanied by the increase in the level of childhood obesity. A child who spends most of their time indoors watching TV or playing computer games tends to grow up to become a sedentary, inactive adult. Habits are, after all, formed in childhood; what is a habit today becomes a lifestyle tomorrow.
Besides encouraging physical activity, another way to ensure that your child remains healthy in a world of electronics is to avoid snacking during screen time. Mindless snacking while watching a TV programme or playing games on the tablet leads to bad eating habits as it prevents the brain from fully enjoying the snack, thus making the child feel unsatisfied and asking for more.
Another aspect of health that has emerged with the introduction of mobile devices in children’s lives is eye health. Excessive screen time stresses the eyes due to the blue light that comes off the screen. Use a specialised screen protector to reduce the blue light or lower the brightness of the screen, especially in low light conditions.
Diet can also play a part in ensuring eye health. Lutein is a nutrient that has become known as the ‘eye vitamin’ for its role in keeping eyes in tip-top condition. Lutein-rich foods include eggs (especially the yolk), leafy greens, such as spinach, broccoli and zucchini. So make sure your child gets plenty of these to reduce the damage screen time may wreak on their eyes. So while you cannot completely get rid of the screen in your home, you may find that it has a place in good parenting practices. Be screen-smart but remember that an hour of quality time with you is way better, and more fulfilling, than an hour with any TV programme or app, no matter how educational.