SCREENS have become so embedded in our daily lives that it’s hard to imagine turning them off for a whole week. Besides the fact that many, if not most, children use them for homework, they are also how we get work done, get questions answered, communicate, shop, and relax. For many families, they are also how they keep the children occupied. How do you go a day without all that — let alone a week?
According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), 8 to 18-year-olds spend an average of seven hours a day on screen media. Some of that is homework, but clearly, it’s not all homework. Pre-schoolers spend two to four hours, toddlers two hours, and a third of babies under a year are spending more than an hour watching videos or playing games every day.
It’s not all awful, of course. There is certainly high-quality educational content out there. However, children aren’t always watching that high-quality educational content. And even if they were, when you are watching a screen you are generally sedentary, not interacting with others, and relying on the screen to entertain or guide you rather than entertaining or guiding yourself.
This has implications for the health and development of children. Excessive screen time is associated with a higher risk of obesity. It can lead to poorer problem-solving and social skills and poorer grades. It’s been linked to Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and other behavioural problems.
1. Rearrange the living room so that the television isn’t the centre of attention. This is a tip from the CCFC which is very useful. Sure, watching TV together is fun; everyone enjoys family movie nights. But if all the furniture faces the TV, not only is the natural tendency to turn it on when you sit down, but the message is that it’s what the living room is for rather than talking to each other, playing a game, or doing anything else but watching TV.
2. Keep TVs out of bedrooms. They just don’t need to be there. And when it’s bedtime, laptops and phones should be out of there too; increasingly, screens are interfering with sleep, especially for teens.
3. Don’t turn on the TV during meals and put the cell phones aside. Talk to each other instead. Family dinners have all sorts of benefits for children, from increasing their vocabulary to improving their nutrition to building better bonds between children and parents to helping keep teens out of trouble.
4. Don’t have automatic screen times. So many families have the habit of turning on screens in the morning, after school, or during dinner preparation. It’s not always terrible to do this; having a child watch one age-appropriate programme while you do a few chores or just relax can be helpful. But be thoughtful about it. Does this really help? Is there an alternative, like engaging the child in cooking, or having them get homework done? Make sure it’s the best choice for the moment.
5. Make sure you’ve got supplies for creativity. Like paper, crayons, markers, and paints. Head to a craft store; bring your kids along and invest in some supplies for making things. Buy toys that encourage creativity and imagination, like building blocks, cars, or dollhouses. There should be lots to reach for when you are tempted to reach for a screen.
6. Pack books, small toys, playing cards, or paper and crayons whenever you head to anywhere you may get stuck waiting for your child. When I travel and have to wait in the airports, or during flights, it seems to me like the only thing parents ever have on hand is their phones. There are so very many alternatives; help your child learn that.
7. Head outside. In general, children spend much more time indoors than they used to (we all do). Whether it’s heading to the park, going for a bike ride, walking around the block, or kicking a soccer ball in the backyard, make an effort to have some outdoor time at least every day. It disengages you from screens and literally engages your children with the world.
8. Make a family media plan. The American Academy of Paediatrics has some great interactive tools to help you take stock of and plan how and when your children and family use media. You should be in charge of media, not the other way around. As a mother, I know that is not always easy, but the earlier you start setting rules, the easier it is to keep them in the long run.