The Coronavirus ended the big debate – AND SCREENS WON! We saw the digital slide consume us all, and most of all our kids. Now that the vaccines are here and there is some hope that we may see light at the end of the tunnel, it might be time to pick up that fight again. I gathered some top-notch advisors and spoke to them on the purpose, and guidelines for screen time in this new normal.
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place, you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books.― Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
These lines are from the poem “Television” in the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, written by Roald Dahl (1964). Mike Teavee teleports himself into the television set against Mr. Wonka’s wishes and can’t be brought back to the same size again. The Oompa-Loompas sing this to let everyone know that TV is a terrible thing and that it’s probably best not to let your kids go near it and advise on getting a lot of books instead. I would say, those Oompa-Loompas are pretty darn smart!
While the COVID-19 pandemic has made us all go loose with our rules around screen time, it might be a good time to rethink and rewire ourselves. After more than a year into the pandemic, parents across the world have watched their children slide down into all-consuming digital life. We now use screens for school, for play, for socialising, and for connecting with friends and family. Our tablets and phones have become a centerpiece of our lives – to learn and to connect with others.
It is now impractical to think that we can go back to the no-screen or minimum screen policy of the pre-pandemic levels; but with no physical school, extra-curricular activities, or practically anything else to engage them in, I’ve been thinking hard about what else we can as parents do?
I got some counsel from 4 experts, who’ve been guiding and helping families cope all through the pandemic.
Dr Jagrati Aranha is an excellent ophthalmologist with over 3 decades of experience and practice. She encourages her patients to develop excellent eye care routines and healthy diet habits.
Dr Ramesh Iyer is a Mumbai-based child and newborn specialist with over 30 years of experience. He has been counseling and guiding parents and teenagers on behavioural issues and expectations.
Geeta Harisinganey is the co-founder of Sweven Montessori School. She currently teaches children from pre-k to twelfth grade and has been guiding parents and children alike.
Madhura Patwardhan is a Counselling Psychologist at Trijog, mental health care and holistic wellness organization in Mumbai. She has experience in helping children and young adults.
Why Are Kids So Attracted To Screens?
The reason kids are so entranced with screens is that they are designed specifically to grab a kid’s attention. Many apps and programs are designed to stimulate dopamine release (Dopamine is a “feel-good” chemical messenger in the brain. It plays a role in how we feel pleasure and satisfaction as part of a reward system. It boosts mood, motivation, attention and helps regulates movement, learning, and emotional responses) and encourages children to keep playing – by offering rewards or exciting visuals at unpredictable times. The characters, colours, music, storyline, all provide stimulus which nothing else can match. The screen is just a tireless entertaining machine. Young children, especially 2- 5 years olds are susceptible to the allure of the device and it can be very hard to take it away once they go down this path. There’s instant gratification and there’s no pause. Dr. Iyer says, “The screen has become a source of pleasure, a source of happiness, the go-to coping mechanism, which has to be stopped.”
Dr. Aranha believes that there are 3 reasons for kids being so attracted to screens. She says, “Firstly, they are aping their elders, i.e. their parents, elder siblings or grandparents, in every aspect of usage. Psychologically they have convinced themselves that if the elders are carrying on with their tasks, either job-related or even entertainment, with the help of a device, then that is the norm and it is ok. Secondly, the present covid situation is compelling them to go about with their curriculum using a device, and there is no choice there. Thirdly, the restriction of their physical movement outside the home is also leaving them with few options to spend their time qualitatively.”
Are There Long-Term Effects Of Excessive Screen Time On Kids?
The answer is a resounding yes!
Screen time also comes at the cost of reduced physical activity, increased BMI and reduced social interaction. It has also been linked to less sleep in both children and adults.
Recent studies have also shown that excessive screen time also causes developmental delays in children.
Madhura points out “When you sit in front of screens for long hours it definitely has a big effect to some extent. It could lead to an increase in obesity which brings with it low self-esteem. Lack of socialization may lead to having less opportunity for children who are enrolled in the developmental phase currently. There might be delays in their social skills development because they are not getting the opportunity to meet anyone, make friends and enjoy themselves with friends. Unfortunately, they are missing out on these things. And definitely screen time will have an adverse effect if we don’t use it right. Otherwise, it could be a powerful tool to our advantage. It is up to us how we choose to use it.”
Is All Screen Time Bad?
Ms. Madhura says, “Screen time in itself is not a problem. The problem lies in not being able to exercise adequate self-control,” and that is what we need to exercise and teach our children as well. There are ways to use a screen and still engage with children. She says that adults should also have some screen time rules set out for themselves. Ms. Madhura also recommends that parents supervise or watch the content with the children. “I think watching something alone and watching something as a family and having a discussion about it, talking about it and talking to children about what they like and dislike about a certain program that they watch, and combining it with some more life experiences always helps. Because then they need to apply their own knowledge and process that information rather than just taking it in.”
Also, she advocates that screen time should be combined with real-life experiences. A fun activity that she recommends is to watch a clip on mute and then enact the characters by interpreting their facial expressions. She says parents need to explore, get creative, and be innovative in using screen time while the child also learns something from it.
I certainly understand the joy my child gets when we watch Pink Panther or Curious George videos together. She can laugh at it for a long even after the video is over, and brings it up as conversation throughout the day.
Geeta shares the view and adds that the screen has two purposes, as an educational tool, which the schools are using right now, and as a conduit of information. We as adults have to help them make better content choices and guide them towards it. “It would be nice to have an adult sit next to the child, share some ideas, and share some thoughts. Let there be a conduit of information that is going, to and fro on it. Let there be context. You may not intervene all the time but at least you’re aware and you know what to bring up where and when. But at the same time, my suggestion is that you talk to the children about it. We are a Montessori and we believe that when children engage by themselves, they will make the right choices.”
All the experts I spoke to strongly advised parental guidance and involvement in screen time. Helping them make the right content choice from a young age will ensure that by the time they are older – say 9 or 10 years old, they will have developed guidelines in their minds on what constitutes good content.
Read More: Is screen time good or bad for children?
What Are The Signs That My Kid Is Getting Excessive Screen Time?
Dr. Aranha warns that we have to look out for early signs of screen addiction. She says, “An early sign of addiction to a device is justifying an activity which as an adult one can rationalise that there is no need to indulge in that activity. Secondly, due to overuse of screen time, one can develop symptoms like redness, pain, watering, itching of the eyes. Some kids show obesity because of relative inactivity.”
Dr. Iyer echoes the advice. “Sometimes the child gets redness of the eyes, itching of the eyes. The power increases; children who’ve never had glasses we’ve seen a lot of them getting myopia and requiring glasses or their power increases. So, these are all tell-tale signs that the child is spending too much time in front of the screen.”
Dr. Iyer also adds that besides excessive weight gain he has also witnessed behavioural changes and increased irritability in children due to excessive screen time.
The general consensus among the counsels I spoke to was that there should be a set limit to the on-screen time of not more than an hour a day outside of school and homework. Screen time comes at the cost of movement, social interaction and leads to disconnection.
How Do We Wean Kids Off Screen Time Habits?
The key to getting kids back from their screen is to connect with them, get involved with them and give them age-appropriate responsibilities. Think lots of play, tickles, hugs, nature walks, silly games, family time, reading a book together, cooking, cleaning, dancing, and anything else that brings joy.
Dr. Aranha says, “Initially, indulge them in some activities which do not use devices, like board games, etc. I would go further and then involve them in the daily chores of the house. That will groom them to take care of themselves once they leave the nest. Making their beds, cleaning their room, folding the clothes, laying the table, etc.; activities which do not compromise on their safety.”
Dr. Iyer advises that play is the key to connect with kids, “Play board games together. Talk about positive things. Even though the whole world around you is in the midst of a pandemic and there are so many bad things happening, so many sad stories all over, within the four confines of your house you can still be positive. Like, in some online classes kids are doing yoga, pranayama, Surya Namaskar, etc. So, all these things also improve physical activity.”
Geeta reiterated the advice that we should allow our children to take care of themselves and the house. “So a lot of times the parent believes that it is upon them to entertain the child, it is upon them to care for the child, it is upon them to feed the child. Instead, if you kind of start putting it on the child as their job, that they are responsible for their hunger and they need to feed themselves, they are responsible for actually picking up their clothes and taking a shower and wearing their clothes. They’re responsible also to participate in cleaning up the house with you because it is their house and they are responsible for the social interaction of the family and I believe the child themselves will let go of the screen.”
This will give them a sense of accomplishment and responsibility, engage them constructively, and lead to gratification.
All of them emphasised the importance of connecting with the children and meeting them at their level. Connecting with children makes them feel they are loved, they matter and they are not alone. It also increases their self-worth and confidence and that’s exactly where we want our children to be. ☺
Since Screen Time Has Become A Necessity Is There Any Way To Minimise Its Effect On Our Eyes?
The good news is yes!
Dr. Aranha has 4 simple pieces of advice when it comes to taking care of our eyes.
- Take a 20 sec break from the screen at 20 min intervals and also blink 20 times during this period.
- Maintain a good posture and adequate light in the room.
- Have plenty of water.
- Eat a healthy and nutritious diet.
So in the end it all comes down to us – the parents. We play a prime role in grooming children. Our children ape us in our attitude, lifestyle and habits. They do not learn by being told what to do; they learn by observing us and picking up on things. While we cannot do away with screens completely in the current scenario, what we can do is revisit the boundaries and set some rules – for them, as well as for us – because the quality of content and how they consume it is MORE important than the quantity of screen time.
As Joan Ganz Cooney, the co-creator of Sesame Street used to say, “All television content is teaching something. The question is what is it teaching?”