Articles, Literacy

Should we be strict about restricting screen time?

A young boy watches a video on a laptop with no restriction on screen time.

Experienced teachers share things parents should do to set their kids up for success – Part 4 of 10

If you want your children to be literate and successful, you had better get your head around whether to be strict about restricting screen time, and enforcing quality over quantity.

Parents need to be on the same page regarding this, with pre-determined family rules for screen time that are clearly laid out and adhered to by all family members.

Today I will stress the possible dangers of not restricting screen time. There is lots of research out there supporting both sides of this argument. I’ve made up my own mind but have you made up yours? Are you parenting your way through the digital era without a clearly defined strategy?

Here is some food for thought.

What is screen time?

Screen time is time spent in front of any type of screened device, for any length of time, for either entertainment or recreation purposes. This includes TV’s, tablets, laptops, computers, iPads, smart phones and game consoles amongst others.

Types of screen time

Passive screen time

The main characteristic of passive screen time is that no thought, creativity or meaningful interaction is required of the child. The child passively absorbs information through mindless repetition or progress.

  • TV
  • YouTube video on AutoPlay
  • Repetitive games
  • Binge watching shows or movies
  • Social Media

Active screen time

Active screen time involves cognitive and/or physical engagement while using the device.

  • Coding activities
  • Educational games that require decision making and problem solving skills
  • Making Youtube videos that involve creativity and decision making
  • Editing pictures
  • Reading for leisure or knowledge

Remember that any screen time can be active or passive depending on how it is used.

Age appropriate screen time

In general, no passive screen time is recommended for children ages 0-6 years. There is research that suggests that it may delay language development, limit vocabulary growth or contribute to even more serious problems such as insomnia, screen addiction and lower psychological well being.

If screen time is allowed at all for children older that 6 years, it should be active, limited, supervised, interactive, fun and these activities should be played with family members. Don’t allow yourself to get into the habit of using screen time as a babysitting service.

For older children, I recommend limited screen time that is active and purpose driven. Some experts say that if it does not have educational value it has no value at all. I’m not sure if I agree with this completely but once again I strongly suggest that you don’t allow yourself to get into the habit of using screen time as a babysitter.

There is some indication that in older children too much screen time can lead to mood regulation problems, delayed or improper social development, concentration issues, behavioural and learning problems.

The effect of screen time on the brain

It is undisputedly a drug – and a fiercely addictive one at that. Studies on the effects of screen time on the brain, have indicated that the amount of dopamine released is comparable to that of cocaine or heroine.

UCLA Doctor, Peter Whybrow, refers to screens as “electronic cocaine” due to the level of dopamine that’s released while using digital technology. We know that the effects of dopamine are addictive, which is why so many of us adults can’t stay away from FaceBook or our other social media accounts. If we are unable to control our own addiction to screen time, we can’t really expect our children to do so of their own accord. We have to parent.

I’m sure most parents have experienced the epic, terrible two’s like melt down style tantrum that takes place when you switch off your child’s screen after asking them 3 times to come to the dinner table for the not negotiable family dinner.  What transpires can be frightening, but in light of what we know from the research about addiction, it is understandable.

Victoria L. Dunckley (M.D.) has written extensively on the topic of restricting screen time. She indicates that by not restricting screen time it can lead to Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS)  which is essentially a disorder of dysregulation.  In her article, she states that “dysregulation can be defined as an inability to modulate one’s mood, attention, or level of arousal in a manner appropriate to one’s environment. Interacting with screens shifts the nervous system into fight-or-flight mode which leads to dysregulation and disorganization of various biological systems.” No wonder a tantrum ensues.

In addition, Victoria L. Dunckley (M.D.) blames a lot of mental health problems in kids on the effects of electronic screens. She believes that “the unnaturally stimulating nature of an electronic screen—irrespective of the content it brings—has ill effects on our mental and physical health at multiple levels”.

Why be strict about restricting screen time?

We know that…

  • Children don’t reliably self-regulate screen time. Therefore, we should still try to teach them how.
  • Light-at-night / blue light exposure adversely affects sleep.
  • Persuasive design is used by video game and social media companies to pull users, including children, onto their sites and keep them there for as long as possible—as this drives revenue.
  • Various other problems are associate with too much screen time
    • Attention problems
    • Learning problems
    • Mood disruption
    • Social problems
    • Behavioural issue
  • Those in the know in the tech industry , like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Chris Anderson, Evan Williams and Tim Cook sometimes severely restricted their children’s screen time. This should be a warning to us.

Guidelines for restricting screen time

There are an astounding number of articles online advising on guidelines for restricting screen time in the home. I strongly feel that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ option that will work for everyone. I think that as a family you should do sufficient research of your own in order to make an informed decision. Then create a set of rules / guidelines that work for your family, that everyone can adhere to and which don’t compromise your child’s psychological, social, educational and behavioural well being. Balance is everything.

My only list of suggested ‘musts’ are these…

  • Each family must have rules that govern screen time.
  • These rules must be adhered to consistently.
  • The charging of digital devices should take place in the parents’ bedroom overnight.
  • Parents / legal guardians must have access to all social media accounts and must monitor them.
  • Adhere to the law and age restrictions regarding social media accounts. There are reasons for these age limits and 13 years old is a general guideline.
  • Restrict screen time close to bedtime.
  • Restrict screen time during dinner time.
  • No screen time until homework and chores are done.
  • Paper books must still be part of a child’s daily life.
  • Screen time must not be used as a babysitting service.
  • Parents must set the example.

Further Reading

For Part 3 in this series and to read “Develop a culture of reading in your home”, please click here.

To explore working with Lianne in Randburg / Sandton and other areas in Johannesburg, contact her for a consultation to discuss how she can assist you.