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Technology, Robotics, and AI

Screens and young kids

31 July 2019

It’s so easy, isn’t it? Sit them down with a screen. Toddlers as young as one will stay there, entranced. Sometimes for hours.

There’s been a lot of research into the impact of screens on children. It can be summed up simply: no screens when they’re little, and be restrictive as they get older.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has taken the view that, under two years of age, kids shouldn’t see screens at all. Later, two hours a day, max.

Their reason? “Because there’s no evidence of benefit, and a lot of concern about harm: because we worry about what screen time may be replacing in the lives of young children, who need direct human interaction to learn and develop.”

This is key. When they’re watching and playing with screens, what are they missing?

The commercial impact

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, founded by Harvard psychiatrist Dr Susan Linn, has concerns for other reasons:

“The rise of ubiquitous, sophisticated, and portable screen technologies allows marketers unprecedented direct access to children. At the same time, key policies and agencies created to protect kids from harmful marketing have been weakened. The result is a commercialised culture causing harm to children…And when children adopt the values that dominate commercial culture—materialism, self-indulgence, conformity, impulse buying, and unthinking brand loyalty—the health of democracy and sustainability of our planet are threatened.”

How much time are they spending online?

A striking statistic from Australia demonstrates the habits families are drifting into: 40% of 18-month-old toddlers spend two hours a day watching and playing with screens. In the UK, an Ofcom report found that, on average, preschool children spend more than four hours a day with screens. In early adolescence that number rises to about seven hours a day.

If you have children, or grandchildren, it might be interesting to track their habits and see where their behaviour stacks up in comparison with national averages. Just asking these questions makes us all much more aware of what’s going on.

Dr Linn advises the following around screen-use:

“The way to help children flourish in the digital age is to ensure that they develop a solid grounding in, and love for, the analogue world. They need time to form powerfully deep attachments to people and connections with the rest of the natural world. To develop a healthy sense of themselves, children need satisfying experiences unmediated by digital devices. They need to explore with all of their senses, and have chances to become bored enough to generate their own amusements and interests.”

But, aside from the impact of commercialism, what other implications might overuse of screens lead to?

Well, according to a report in The Daily Telegraph, the main impact is on speech development and language skills. Too much screen time stunts development in these areas.

It can also affect sleep and brain development. A British study found that every hour infants spent on devices was linked to 16 minutes less sleep.

So what?

Does this mean we should take devices away from little children altogether?

Not necessarily. Jenny Radesky, lead author on the report by American Academy of Pediatrics, does allow her kids to use screens, but she carefully monitors their use.

For example, her children don’t get access to digital media during the week. On Fridays, they have a family movie night – she encourages the use of screen time together with your kids. At weekends, the kids are allowed cartoons, apps and games. But more than just limiting time on these, Radesky talks to her children about the way they react to video games and how they interpret information they find online.

Now, if you’re a parent, I’m not trying to make you feel guilty. Well perhaps I am. Because feelings of guilt are powerful motivators. They may not persuade you to change the way you behave, but they should at least help you sit down and think.

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