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Kids in the digital screen age – an expert’s view on how much swiping and scrolling should be allowed

Kids in the digital screen age – an expert’s view on how much swiping and scrolling should be allowed
The World Health Organization recommends that schoolgoing children (five to 17 years) limit their recreational screen time. (Photo: Rawpixel)

It is practically impossible to prevent children from engaging with electronic gadgets, but setting some boundaries is vital if parents or caregivers want to limit the potential negative effects.

How much time did your child spend looking at a screen today? The answer probably depends on how old they are, what grade they’re in at school and what rules you have in place at home about screen time.

But the reality is that, for children and adolescents growing up as “digital natives”, it is almost impossible to imagine life without screens of some sort.

Devices such as cellphones, laptops and tablets have become ubiquitous as tools for entertainment and education in most parts of the world.

This has led parents, guardians, teachers and researchers to wonder whether screens are good or bad for children.

My view is that there are benefits of educational screen time, but we don’t know enough about the potential harms.

The World Health Organization recommends that schoolgoing children (five to 17 years) limit their recreational screen time. The recommendation for two- to four-year-olds is not more than one hour a day (less is better); it suggests that children younger than two should have no screen time.

Research evidence suggests that children and adolescents were already exceeding these recommendations, and that the Covid-19 pandemic only made it worse.

There isn’t yet conclusive evidence about whether screen time is good or bad for children. But, based on my continuing research into children’s development – including the role of play, sleep, physical movement and screen time – my view is that there are benefits of educational screen time, but we don’t know enough about the potential harms.

Screen swiping and typing are poor substitutes for activities like writing, drawing, colouring in, painting and cutting.

Nevertheless, there are several things parents and teachers can do. This includes basics such as being aware of how much time children are spending on screens and what their posture is like, as well as more complex issues such as what each child’s developmental weaknesses and strengths are. It also involves setting boundaries.

None of this is easy to implement, but it doesn’t mean that it cannot be a healthy goal worth working towards. It is never too late to start, but the earlier you do the better.

Covering the basics

First, it is essential for parents to be aware of the ways in which screen-based activities (educational and recreational) influence their child’s development as well as their behaviour.

Second, remember that all children are different and will therefore respond differently to screen time.

So, understanding the child and their strengths and weaknesses is key.

For example, if a child struggles with managing sensory input – such as loud noises, bright lights or certain textures – it may be better for them to avoid recreational screen time.

Third, establish boundaries around screen time. This is key at home and at school.

Fourth, keep tabs on how screen time is stopping children from doing other things that are developmentally beneficial.

For example, in the home, a child who is learning mostly on screens at school could be encouraged to spend time after school playing outside and doing activities that develop fine motor skills.

Screen swiping and typing are poor substitutes for activities like writing, drawing, colouring in, painting and cutting, all of which stimulate these skills.

Fifth, in a school environment, are there other activities that provide children and adolescents opportunities to intentionally develop their social and emotional skills, which are not getting as much attention when they are working alone on screens?

And last, are screens set up in such a way that encourages good posture?

Baby steps

Setting boundaries and striving for a healthy balance of educational and recreational screen time within the broader context of development may seem daunting.

It requires thoughtfully reflecting on the wider impacts of the choices made around screens, and offering a range of opportunities that help to boost children’s chances of growing up to become healthy and well-adjusted adults.

As much as possible, involve children and adolescents in conversations about why a healthy balance of screen time will benefit them. This can help them take ownership of their choices about their health and development – both in the present as well as for their future health and well-being. DM

First published by The Conversation.

Catherine Draper is an associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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