Interaction with technology and ‘screens’ is a part of life in Singapore, and indeed around the world, largely due to accessibility: hands up who is guilty of letting a tot have an iPad for five minutes of peace while you eat dinner? Of course, there’s a growing debate over how much kids should watch on screens, and it goes without saying that parents who have granted kids the power of technology will also be needing apps to control screen time.
But if you’re feeling the burn of the debate (or maybe you suspect the kids might be developing a case of ‘screen addiction’) then you’ve come to the right place. We spoke to Jacqueline Cotton, speech-language therapist from The Guided Child, who was recently part of an assessment team who diagnosed a child with Gaming Addiction, about the best ways to digitally detox your kids…
Hi Jacqueline! Can you tell us what screen time actually means?
Broadly speaking, screen time is the time spent on a device, i.e. watching a screen. As a speech-language therapist and mother-of-three, screen time to me is more like ‘digital nutrition’. A concept coined by psychologist Jocelyn Brewer, she likens ‘media diets’ to what is on our plates: rather than counting calories (or screen time), think about what you are eating and value quality rather than quantity.
There is a big difference between FaceTiming family, watching a YouTube video of volcanoes and giving a child under five years of age free reign over a device to keep them occupied or calm them down. You should also consider the difference between handheld devices like an iPad or an iPhone vs larger more communal devices such as TV.
When is too much screen time a bad thing?
There is cause to be concerned when screen time (or anything, really) starts to have a negative functional impact on daily life or we/our child rely on it to get through the day. This differs for each child, but common negative effects include:
- An inability to self-sooth or self-entertain – becoming reliant on screens without developing self-soothing strategies.
- Loss of interest in other activities over technology – they might prefer to watch an iPad or TV rather than play or go outside.
- Shorter attention spans – watching constant movement, colour, exciting music etc is easy and passive. If that is taken away from a child, the normal life (without its flashing lights and boppy music) can appear ‘dull’, and the child will start looking for more stimulation.
- Interfere with sleep patterns – this can happen when kids have too much screen time, especially at night.
- Less social interaction with family and friends – this speaks for itself.
What should parents do?
First, distinguish between “functional” and “entertainment” screen time. For example, functional or educational screen time should include things like FaceTiming/Skyping relatives, watching an educational video or documentary and making an iMovie. Whereas entertainment screen time includes TV programmes, educational/non-educational games and unsupervised screen time.
Next, have screen time scheduled into your daily routine. In my household, screen time is only allowed after school 2 to 3pm. At 3pm the screens are off, and the kids have to figure out what to do next. No arguments, no change – the TV goes off at 3pm for the rest of the day. Some of my friends have chosen to use it after dinner and before bed, but only you know what is right for you.
What are some challenges parents can expect to face when trying to digital detox their kids?
Every child will react differently depending on their personality and how screen time has been used in the past. That is, if screens were used to pacify tantrums or always used to help them eat at mealtime, a change in their routine will probably cause issues. Kids may throw tantrums, act aggressively or display poor behaviour as they adjust to the new routine. Like any behaviour change, these reactions are short lived as long as the boundaries are clear and enforced. If the kids sense weakness, they will pounce and pursue.
How should parents go about a digital detox?
Steer clear of rewards and punishments as it just gives screen time more power. Define functional vs non-functional/entertainment use, set up the times allowed and do your best to enforce them. Some recommendations from the Canadian Guidelines on Screen Time for Young Children include minimising screen time and making sure adults around the kids model healthy screen usage.
And if nothing else works?
Make screen time boring for them. Give them the same content to watch and limit their choices. Unplug the Apple TV during the week and save content like movies for the weekends.
Eventually (hopefully), they will get bored and turn it off.
One last piece of advice for parents?
On a plane, they can have whatever they want.
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