Screen time is an inescapable reality of modern childhood, with kids of every age spending hours upon hours in front of iPads, smartphones, computers and televisions. It seems in today’s world children are born ‘digital’. From young toddlers to teens, children appear to have a flair of being able to navigate the world of technology, using a range of gadgets for enjoyment, social connection and education. Classrooms are now filled with technology from computers to bring-your-own-device (BYOD) and home life nearly always includes frequent use of electronic devices. Technology is the vehicle through which children navigate life – from fantastical virtual landscapes, into connecting with friends and peers, through to education and learning, technology provides children with much reward and enjoyment.
However, there is increasing global concern around the amount of time and the type of contact that children and teenagers are having with technology. The Australian Health Survey 2011-2012 found that on average, children and young people aged 5–17 years spent one and a half hours per day on physical activity and over two hours a day on screen-based activity. It reported that physical activity decreased and screen-based activity increased as age increased. Parents are reporting negative changes in their children’s behaviour such as mood swings, verbal aggression or withdrawal following spending time using a variety of technology. Many parents have experienced a ‘techno-tantrum’: when an otherwise well-adjusted child bursts into tears or erupts in anger when asked for their smartphone to be handed over, or the TV to be switched off. These ‘over-reactions’ are contributing to concern that our children and teenagers are becoming addicted to technology.
In other parts of the world electronic addiction in young people is well documented. Countries such as India, South Korea, China and Taiwan have dedicated technology addiction clinics to confront what many Asian-Pacific cultures consider to be a growing public health problem. To what extent an electronic addiction is considered a true medical condition remains contentious around the world with a shift noted in 2013 with the publication of DSM-5 noting “internet gaming addiction” as a condition warranting further study.
So how do I know if my child is addicted to technology?
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
If these warning signs ring a bell, it’s time to take action and create a healthy digital diet for your child, teen and family.
So how much is too much electronic time?
The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) developed guidelines for ‘screen-time for children’ more than 15 years ago which were adopted by the Australian Department of Health & Ageing which recommend:
An Australian study found that 45% of 8 year-olds and 80% of 12-17 year-olds were using screens more than the recommended 2 hour limit per day. A US Study found children aged 8 to 18 spending on average 44.5 hours per week in front of screens. Closer to home, the Royal Children Hospital Child Health Poll recently found that nearly 60% of Australian parents think that excessive screen time is a big problem for children and teenagers today. Therefore, it appears our children and teenagers are not adhering to screen-time guidelines and are at risk of technology addiction.
However, in 2015 the AAP revised their guidelines to reflect a changing society acknowledging the notion of screen time as a one-dimensional activity is changing. “In a world where ‘screen time’ is becoming simply ‘time,’” the update reads, “our policies must evolve or become obsolete.” The revised guidelines reflect an evolving understanding that screens are a reality of a child’s everyday existence and there is a need for guidelines to be relevant and realistic. The guidelines now focus on parents setting age-appropriate limits for their child, identifying stimulating content on screens and a differentiation between passive and active use of screens. Computers, tablets, and smartphones are multipurpose devices that can be used for lots of purposes including:
To date, Australia has not officially updated their guidelines to reflect these changes. Australian Child technology expert Kristy Goodwin said screen-time limits lull parents into a false sense of security. “By focusing narrowly on how much screen time children use we overlook other critical considerations such as what children are watching or creating and when they’re using screens,” Dr Goodwin said. “Parents certainly need to monitor and limit children’s screen time, but I don’t think we can prescribe universal amounts of time.”
So it appears there has been a shift away from simply viewing our child’s electronic usage in mere hours per day but rather reviewing the content and level of interaction their use of technology provides. It is not about finding a magic amount of time that is ‘right’ but rather finding a balance between the multitude of purposes that technology can provide our children and teenagers.
Parent tips to create a healthy digital diet:
Get all parents (and older kids) on board. You’ll be more likely to get your children’s commitment if you come up with rules together. The role of screen entertainment in each household will be different, depending on the needs of your family and the age of your kids.
Establish expectations around when is an appropriate time to use technology. It may be helpful to make the busy morning routine before school and work a technology-free time to avoid distraction. Clear expectations that the use of electronics for relaxation and pleasure occur after household chores and homework etc. are completed may be appropriate. Negotiate with your child on how much time they can spend with technology daily and stick to it. Help your child choose how to use technology and how to plan for technology-free time.
Take all TV and computer screens out of kids’ bedrooms. Have a central place where everyone’s smart phones and screen-based devices can be kept at night. Screens can affect sleep onset and quality. Have your children turn off the screen at least one hour before bed.
Meal times are a great chance to engage and chat as a family. Turn the TV off and make a rule of no smartphones or iPads at the table.
Screen time is a habit. Like any habit, it will be hard to break at first. You will need to plan lots of alternative entertainment for your kids. If you take away the screen, they will be looking for something else to do! Use this as an opportunity to spend time with your child or teen.
Last but not least, lead by example. As parents we are our children’s greatest role models. If they see us constantly looking at our smartphone or playing computer games, they will want to do the same. Try to limit your own screen use when spending time with your children.
The bottom line? Technology use is best in moderation, but should never stand in for human interaction or quality family time. Find a balance of technology use for both your household and your child or teen. This will ensure your child or teen can utilise the benefits of technology but avoid developing a technology addiction. Power off from electronics regularly to help your child or teen understand that outside the virtual world of technology, the real world still has a lot to offer.
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