There seems to be a growing concern about how smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices can impact health and overall well-being, especially when it comes to children. In an information-driven society, our lives revolve around screens and keyboards.
Such is life in the digital age. Children are the fastest-growing population of smartphone users, with use often focusing on internet access.
However, despite their widespread use, relatively little is known about the factors that underpin children’s use. That's why researchers are trying to find out how such long periods of use may be affecting our children and their health. Clearly, children are exposed to technology from a very young age and parents are not only providing it, but enabling its use.
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Parents and researchers alike have asked:
- Are devices bad for kids or good for kids?
- How much is too much?
- Does long-term use hurt our brains?
Since digital media and electronics are now playing a larger role in child development, it's easy to see why these questions have been raised by so many. Numerous studies conducted over the years have addressed these concerns, which have produced static and strictly one-sided results. That is, until now.
What screen time can mean for children
According to the researchers at Oxford University, the well-being of children is not impacted in any way by the considerable usage of electronic/mobile devices throughout the day, whether it be during the day or at night. That's directly opposite of what pediatricians and researchers have told parents before.
Between 2011 and 2015, the academics of the university surveyed over 17,000 American and British kids ranging from age 9 to 15 years old, and studied their screen-time habits in relation to their overall health. Previous studies have indicated that anywhere between 50% to 90% of school-aged kids may not be getting enough sleep, due to the increased use of technology. Nevertheless, Oxford's findings have indicated the contrary and concluded that time spent looking at a screen has a minimal effect on their sleep and mental health.
While there is a direct correlation between screen time and a child's sleep, as research has suggested, the study done at Oxford has shown that it's not advanced enough to make a significant difference on a kid's sleep habits. In fact, the research has pointed out that other factors, such as early school time starts and the potentially harmful content being viewed, can have a more substantial impact on childhood sleep/development.
The negative impact that screen time can have on kids
Make no mistake, the recent findings released by Oxford do not by any means completely negate the past results that previous studies have shown. The fact of the matter is that many studies have lead researchers to draw the same conclusion: Using mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, can result in a higher likelihood of behavioral problems and possible mental illness.
One such study found that routine and frequent use of mobile devices is likely to be related to behavioral problems in childhood. This ultimately extends to sleep, which is imperative at such a young age.
For example, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, one such study indicated that both daytime and bedtime use of electronic devices has a negative impact on sleep. There is an increased risk of short sleep duration, long sleep onset latency and increased sleep deficiency. The suppression of melatonin, resulting from the blue light on the screen, is the main reason for this.
Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that greater cumulative hours of media use, beginning at an early age, leads to poor executive functioning, i.e. impulse control, self-regulation and mental flexibility. These impairments have the potential to impact a person's ability to analyze, organize, decide and execute tasks in a timely manner.
How parents can address children and technology
In all things in life, balance is the key to healthy living. It is a parent's duty to create that balance for their children and ensure that they are living a healthy and productive life as they develop. Of course this task does not come as easily for some as it may for others. If your child is having trouble sleeping or maintaining a well-balanced lifestyle, you should consult your pediatrician. There's no better option when it comes to finding the best results for your children.
In the meantime, there are basic concepts and routines that you can practice on your own. Here are five helpful tips you may want to consider going forward.
5 tips to help your kids manage their screen time
1. Create tech-free zones: You should make it a point to keep breakfast, dinner time and any other family/social gatherings a tech-free zone. This includes bedrooms as well, especially when it's close to bedtime. You should consider taking and recharging any electronics overnight outside your child's bedroom in order to reduce the temptation to use them when they should be asleep. This can lead to both better eating and sleeping habits.
2. Set limits and encourage playtime: To much of any one thing is never good. Media usage, like everything else, should have reasonable limits. Unstructured and offline play stimulates creativity. Encourage physical playtime and make it a daily priority. This is especially important for very young children.
3. Screen time shouldn't always be alone time: Co-view, co-play and co-engage with your children when they are using screens - it encourages social interactions, bonding and learning. Try playing a video game with your kids. It's a good way to demonstrate good sportsmanship and gaming etiquette. Don't just monitor children online, interact with them so you can understand what they are doing and be a part of it.
4. Limit digital media for your youngest family members. Avoid digital media for toddlers younger than 18 to 24 months other than video chatting. For children 18 to 24 months, watch digital media with them because they learn more just from interacting with you. There should be a limit on screen use for preschool children, ages 2 to 5, to just 1 hour a day with educational content.
5. Be a good role model: Try to practice what you preach. Children tend to mimic and often emulate their parents. So, if you put a limit on their media use, you should live by the same set of rules and put a limit on your own. In fact, you'll be more available for and connected with your children if you're interacting, hugging and playing with them rather than simply staring at a screen.