We all know that addiction to smartphones and other digital devices is not good for an adult’s physical and mental health, let alone for young children’s. Yet technology is all around us and it’s simply impossible to avoid them.
The average Singaporean now owns three digital devices, so is it even possible to keep children away from technology? As Jordan Shapiro argues in Forbes magazine, “Worrying about exposure to digital screens (today) is like worrying about exposure to… indoor plumbing, the written word, or automobiles.
It could be argued that digital devices have become the new pacifier. Most parents will admit to occasionally using smartphones – loaded with “educational” apps – to calm a fussy toddler or entertain a bored child.
We understand you. As parents, sometimes we just need a break.
But how much screen time can hurt your child’s development? Can we use smartphones to engage children? Where do we draw the line between digital addiction caused by technology overuse and its worth as educational tools?
“Screen time should never replace time that parents can spend interacting with their children”, advises Mrs. Helen Marjan, CEO at Lorna Whiston Schools with more than 25 years of teaching experience. “Children are social beings, and they need to interact with others in order to develop their social skills and language skills,” she adds.
Are Digital Screens Really All That Bad For Your Children?
Passive viewing, such as watching TV or videos, has been associated with delays in language skills and social development. However, recent research has shown that highly interactive digital applications can help children learn to follow directions and build problem-solving skills. Games can engage children’s imagination, and teach them about goals and failure. It doesn’t matter if the game is on a board or an iPad.
Most of all, kids love technology. Even before they can talk, many children can use a smartphone or an iPad with minimal assistance. “There is no magic number when determining how much screen time is appropriate,” says Mrs. Marjan. “At the end of the day, like most things in life, it’s all about balance.”
Unfortunately, smartphone overuse seems to be on the rise amongst children. In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended parents to prohibit all viewing for children under two and limit children’s screen time to just two hours per day for older children.
It didn’t take long for the organisation to upgrade the guidelines considering the rapid advances in technology and the quality of digital media. Now, it focuses on how digital media can be used to benefit children. Parents are still advised to limit “passive” viewing by young children as a preventive measure against digital addiction. And parents need to take an active role in moderating how their children use digital screens.
“Balancing screen time with other types of developmental activities is essential,” says Mrs. Marjan. “Making time for social interaction and creative play is as important as ensuring a balanced diet for your child.”
Setting Rules On Screen Time to Prevent Digital Addiction
Here are five points to consider to ensure your children’s time with digital media is well-spent.
Emphasise interactive communication
Watching videos does not contribute to language development. Children need “talk time” – whether that happens face to face or online.
Choose quality content
There are more than 80,000 “educational” apps available on iTunes and Google Play. A little research can help you find interactive digital applications that offer real learning value.
Play apps and games together
Interacting with your children is still the most important factor in their development. You can still engage with your children by playing apps and games together. This can promote their intellectual and social growth.
Set "no digital" time
Put down devices during meals to encourage family interactions, and limit your child’s screen time especially before bed as the light from devices can interfere with sleep patterns.
Reserve time for creative play
Children still need physical activity and unstructured play time to explore, discover, engage their senses and use their imaginations. The old “two-hour rule” may be outdated, but you can still set reasonable time limits on digital media use to get your child away from the screen and back into the real world.
“Being aware of the potential benefits and pitfalls of digital media is the first step to making informed decisions about how much and what type of digital content you want your child to be exposed to,” says Mrs. Marjan. “As a parent, you are likely to be in the best position to know what will work for your child.”
In our next article, we’ll take a closer look at digital addiction – a growing problem among children in Asia. Then, in Part 3, we’ll share tips on how to manage your child’s technology use and the benefits of having a “Digital Detox” – taking an extended vacation with your children from all digital devices. It’s easier than you think!
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