Part 2: How does screen time really affect child development?

screen time child on ipad

At a glance, there are far more ‘bad news’ articles in Part 1 than ‘good news’ which seem on the surface to confirm our worst fears that screen time really is harming our children. However, whilst there is no question that too much screen time is bad (for all of us), particularly bad for younger children and potentially habit (maybe even addiction) forming there is also clear evidence to show that moderate use of the right sort of screen time can be genuinely positive.

To really get the right balance it is important to understand the risks and what you can do about them:

  • Sleep: impact of blue light on circadian rhythms and hence sleep patterns, as well as the distraction they represent to actually switching off and going to sleep.

Tips: turn on blue light filters, keep screens out of bedroom (adults too) and minimise use near bedtime, particularly if someone is having trouble sleeping. 

  • Health and fitness: just as with adults being sedentary with poor posture and looking at a fixed short distance causes issues for backs, necks and eyes. Spending too much time on screens means too little time is often left to be active. For children this means insufficient real-world play time developing physical (and other) skills but it’s bad whatever your age and can contribute to obesity and wider poor health.

Tips: teach children good posture when using screens, avoid letting them stay in one position for long periods, make sure you and your children have active lifestyles, particularly ensure children have plenty of physical play time. 

  • Behaviour: after screen time many parents report behavioural issues. At a minimum this may simple be fighting to have more time (and long running battle in many households) but more broadly evidence shows that some screen-based content encourages ‘hyper-focus’, messes with vestibular processing (when the movement seen by your eyes doesn’t match real movement detected by your ears as far as I understand – I’m not doctor) and leads to a state of hyperactivity post-screen time. This can be very dependent on the particular child. Activities like jumping on a trampoline or swinging on a swing may help calm.

Tips: be clear and consistent in your screen time rules and explain why balance is so important, avoid fast-paced games particularly if your child displays bad behaviour after use (consider calm, educational alternatives), if they are struggling with hyperactivity try activities like jumping, swinging and trampolining after play to help calm them (and balance the screen time with physical activity). 

  • Social and emotional development: as the brain is plastic it learns from what it experiences (and, of course, doesn’t learn from what it doesn’t experience). Too much time on screen can simply leave too little time being social and learning emotional and social skills from understanding body language and learning empathy to taking time to development relationships. In addition, the fast-paced, easy answer approach of many apps/games/programmes on screen are thought to lead to train the brain to be impatient, they also over stimulate visually and create dopamine surges – a natural drug linked to addiction.

Tips: focus more on what else a child is doing rather than solely on amount of screen time, ensure they have plenty of social, face-to-face time with peers and adults (including plenty of time reading together), imaginative play time and creative play time as well as active play. 

  • Creativity and imagination: historically it was often boredom that gave the brain time to be imaginative and a need to improvise that made them creative. The popular approach of handing over a tablet or mobile to fill every bored moment means this is less likely and could lead to children being less creative and imaginative.

Tips: let children be bored occasionally – don’t immediately hand over that iPad when you get on a long car journey for example. Encourage creative activities your child enjoys whether that’s art, junk modelling, making up stories or building dens. Also, consider choosing screen time that encourages creativity and imagination – there are many options out there. 

Key take-aways:

  • Decide what screen time is healthy for your children and help them manage it as part of a balanced lifestyle alongside plenty of social, creative, and active time – also let them be bored occasionally!
  • Keep screens off around bedtime (whatever your age) or at least use blue light filters.
  • Not all screen time is equal: mindless, fast paced stuff is common but not beneficial, slower, truly-educational, inspiring, thought-provoking content can add real value (in moderation as part of a balanced life-style).

We can’t turn the clock back and remove screens entirely from children’s lives, and wouldn’t want to, but ensuring they are used responsibly, in moderation and focusing on the right content is definitely important. The more we can train our children to be responsible when they are young, the better placed they will be to handle their technology as they grow older.

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