Singapore is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world and technology has become an inseparable part of our daily lives and will continue to be so. It is practically impossible to turn back the clock and stay away from the evolving technology. We are not suggesting this, however, this topic raises the issue of balance in children’s lives. Are young children spending too much time on touch screens and is it affecting their health? The first part of this topic gives parents information about how technology may affect children’s development and well-being.
The time that a child spends using devices such as TV, iPad, smart phones, tablets, computers etc. is called screen time. Screen time can be interactive as in video games and video chats and non-interactive as in watching cartoons. There is no denying the fact that technology is an integral part of how children learn, play and socialise. The issue is how much time and should this be supervised by parents? IT gadgets have been called the ultimate baby sitter and it is not uncommon to see an infant in a stroller looking at an Iphone or Ipad. Parents, juggling with a career and family, find gadgets to be an easy way to keep children engaged and happy. Some parents, in an effort to give the best head start for their children introduce them to devices believing that they have educational value. They believe that learning technology skills will prepare the children for a bright future. Based on research, experts believe that the quality and quantity of screen time is the important factor in developing early screen habits. The key is to maintain a balance between screen time and real life experiences, activities and interactions.
Excessive Screen time
All experts agree that an excessive amount of screen time comes with health risks and there is a possibility of these glowing screens and interactive devices becoming highly addictive. The risk factors associated with excessive screen time are as listed below.
- Loss of interest in real life activities and experiences – Children who spend too much time with electronic media tend to lose interest in play and lag behind in social skills such as having a conversation, making eye contact and developing friendships. They may fail to explore and develop other interests.
- Less time on physical activity - Children need free outdoor play to foster their physical development. Please check our parent portal post, ‘Outdoor Play and Children’s Well-being (Part I)’ to get more information on its benefits.
- Overweight and obesity – Screen time encourages children to be inactive for long periods of time which increases the risk of obesity, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. The tendency to snack during these times and the frequent exposure to advertisements of unhealthy foods also lead to unhealthy habits.
- Injuries related to screen time such as neck, spine and back problems due to long hours of sitting or slouching, repetitive strain injury due to usage of keyboard and mouse are common. Extensive viewing of the screen can cause eye strain, which includes symptoms like eye irritation, fatigue, blurred vision and headaches.
- Sleep disturbances and disorders - Screen time stimulates children’s brain and they need time to calm down before falling asleep. Studies have shown that media adversely affects the quality of sleep. Children should not use any type of media for at least 2 hours before bedtime.
- Excessive usage of media can overstimulate the brain of young children and when it is combined with irregular nap times or sleep disturbances, may result in outbursts and temper tantrums.
- There are links between screen violence and aggressive behaviour in children. Children, who are over exposed to violence on TV or games, try to solve problems through aggression.
- Learning disorders and delayed language development – Fast paced programmes and commercially produced low quality educational DVDs for infants are associated with poor language development and learning ability.
- Attention deficit disorder – High amount of media usage is associated with low attention span later in life.
- Addiction – According to some scientists, when over exposed, media behaves like a drug that controls the executive functioning of the brain such as the ability to plan, organise, pay attention and remember details.
Guidelines for media use
A study done in Singapore as part of a community health project showed that 9 out of 10 children between 18 months and two years were exposed to media and half of them had more than one hour of screen time a day (Teo, 2014). Children’s brains develop rapidly during this early stage. Children below the age of 2 years learn through real life experiences and interaction with their environment and people around them. Passive screen viewing does not help in developing skills in language, creativity and problem solving.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (2016) has set guidelines for screen time based on the age of the child. They recommend
- No screen time for children under 18 months of age. If the parents plan to introduce media between 18 months and 2 years, they need to be engaged with the child and make sure the programmes are of high quality.
- no more than one hour of screen time for children between 2 to 5 years old with adults supervising them.
Media playing in the background
Studies show that TV or other media playing in the home background can be associated with delay in language and cognitive development in children. They try to comprehend what is happening in the background without being able to focus on the activity at hand. The negative impact is even worse if the programme is not appropriate for children.
Parental screen usage
The more amount of time that the parents spend on gadgets, the more disconnected they are from the children, which leads to higher likelihood of children misbehaving to get parents’ attention. Accidental injuries to young children are on the rise as parents and caregivers were unable to keep an eye on their children while they are busy on their own mobile devices. IT gadgets are an essential part of parents’ life and we are not denying this but they can be a distraction.
Though we cannot turn back the clock, it is important for parents to understand the implications of screen usage by their young children. There is a growing body of research that suggest that a baby’s brain gets rewired based on the amount of exposure to the electronic media. Children make sense of their world through exploration and discovery using their five senses. Responsive interactions with parents and significant adults assist in the child’s learning and development. Most learning experiences happen in the real world through hands-on experimentation. Children are often passive participants in the world of children’s IT programs and some are pure entertainment but highly addictive. Therefore, following guidelines set by experts and setting limits on the quantity and quality of media usage are seen as essential for children’s health and well-being.
Part II of this topic to be released on the parent portal will provide guidelines and some strategies for parents on how to make screen time safe and healthy. It will also give tips on how to use technology to enhance children’s learning and development.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2016). American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Children’s Media Use. Retrieved January 29, 2017, from https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/american-academy-of-pediatrics-announces-new-recommendations-for-childrens-media-use.aspx
Teo, J. (2014, August 7). Turn off that tech toy. The Straits Times: Mind your Body. pp. 12-13.
Copyright © Marjory Ebbeck and Sheela Warrier 2017
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