Limit their screen time

Published On: March 30, 2019 12:05 AM NPT By: Usha Pokharel

Parents providing more screen time to their children in an effort to give them an educational edge may be doing them significantly more harm

The other day while waiting to board Qatar airlines I noticed a family rushing in to meet the boarding time with a toddler in tow. They were sitting just a few seats away from me. I was not paying much attention to them, but something caught my ears.  The toddler was repeatedly saying something that to me sounded like iPad. When I listened closely, I realized he was indeed asking for an iPad.  I was shocked. If a child that young knew the name and understood it as something to entertain him, I wondered how much time he spent with it. I could only guess it as partly working as a baby sitter. 

I had previously seen new parents give their baby their smartphone or tablet to amuse him/herself with, without a second thought. This child had asked because his parents had introduced the gadget to him. It is entirely possible that the parents did not understand the implication of giving such a thing as a toy to a child that young.  The only thing they understood was, ‘if giving it made their life easier, why not’?  Parents are unaware of the fact that too much ‘screen time’ can hamper their child’s development.  

Screen time is the amount of time one spends looking at the digital display of TVs, computers, tablets, iPads and smartphones.  Reflect and think how much time your child spends with these gadgets.  You might have solved your immediate problem, but at what cost?  Think about it.

Screen time effects
Growing research data suggests negative impact of too much screen time on children’s development: along with their memory, attention and language skills.  A recent report published in  The Journal of the American Medical Association links poor progress on key developmental measures including communication skills, problem solving and social interactions among children with too much of screen time. 

The report was based on a study conducted at University of Calgary, Canada. The study followed 2441 mothers and children within the age group two to five years. The study was quite extensive. The data were collected at the beginning of the study, when the children were two years old, then again when they were three and finally at five. There have been many studies done in the past related to children and screen time, but this study was special because it was conducted over a period of time.  This study enabled the researchers to learn how screen time and development interacted.  

According to Sheri Madigan, an assistant professor of psychology at University of Calgary who was involved in the research, “The results show that there is a lasting influence of screen time, especially when children are two to five years old, when their brains are undergoing a period of tremendous development”.  It makes perfect sense because every minute of screen time is a missed opportunity for learning and development for a child. Before handing a gadget to a child, parents need to understand that when a child starts watching a screen, s/he is missing out on an opportunity for walking, talking and interacting with others.  That is a sure risk parents are taking. You must be thinking, ‘but this is an era of gadgets.  How can one keep their children away from it?’  

It’s a valid question.  Screen time is inescapable reality in a modern child’s life, with children having access to variety of gadgets, whether it is iPads, smartphones, televisions or tablets. I know you are not ready to accept it and will surely justify your use of these gadgets. I am aware of your dilemma. It sure is a challenge for parents to find a smart way of avoiding it as much as possible.  It’s just that, too much of screen time at the worst possible age, can have lifetime consequences for your child. Despite the fact that it provides you a much needed break from your demanding children.

The issue here lies in the fact that whatever makes tablets and iPhones so great (dozens of stimuli at your fingertips, and the ability to process multiple actions simultaneously) is exactly the thing that a young brains do not need at a time when they are very young. Now you must be thinking, why?  Let me explain it a bit. I am sure you have seen some babies trying to ‘swipe’ a photograph, or punch their fingers onto a picture book, as if it was a touchscreen.  You must be thinking the baby is pretty smart and cute.  Yes, it may seem smart or cute, but this points to a very serious activity in the child’s brain: an internalization of the fact that all actions have an immediate effect, and that all stimuli bring forward a quick response. 

When every finger swipe brings a response of colors, shapes and sounds a child’s brain responds gleefully with the neurotransmitter dopamine: the key component associated with feelings of pleasure. So when dopamine hits the brain, a child can feel almost addictive. Hence when a child gets too used to an immediate stimuli response, s/he will learn to always prefer smartphone-style interaction—immediate gratification and response— instead of real-world connection. Despite the dangers these gadgets pose during early years of a child, they are still pretty much beneficial after a certain age.  According to the doctors, once the child crosses two years, limited exposure is ok.  The operative still is limited, maximum of one hour. This will help develop coordination, improve quick responses and in some cases also sharpen language skills, if the gadget is used properly under supervision of the parents. Still using smartphone should be minimum.  Just remember it can never stand in for real life interactions. Despite everything, using these gadgets is not always bad.

Wean the kids  
The market is flooded with educational apps and TV shows that are beneficial to the children to sharpen their developing brains and sharpen their communication skills. Still parents need to be very careful. Several troubling studies connect delayed cognitive development in very young children with extended exposure to electronic media.  There are a few things parents can do to make the best use of the available gadgets for their children.

For starters make sure your child does not spend exceeding large amount of time in front of electronic media. Combined with this I request you not to let your two year old play regularly with your iPad or have toys that involve touch screen.  Please do understand, between birth and age three, a child’s brain develops very quickly and is very sensitive to the environment around them.  This period is also called the critical period, because the changes taking place in the brain during these first years become the permanent foundation upon which all later brain function is built. So if the damage takes place during these crucial periods, its result can affect the child forever. 

Finally, those parents who opt for providing more screen time to their children in an effort to give them an educational edge may be doing significantly more harm than good to their children.   If you are indeed doing so, please allocate screen time for your children according to their age and their need.  You also need to make a plan as to how the gadgets are used, where they are used, how long and for what purpose. It’s really up to you to cultivate healthy habits regarding the use of these devices. My advice to the parents is to remember to power off your gadgets regularly to help your children understand the clear boundaries between real life and the virtual world.  That is not very difficult, right parents?

Pokharel is an educationist and author of several children’s books

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