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Children’s use of Technology

November 27, 2015

Christmas is fast approaching. Let’s take a look at how much screen time is healthy for children.

“Please turn off your phone, you are about to have the most important meeting of your day!” read a sign in a Norwegian preschool which asks parents to turn off their phones when they are collecting their children from preschool. We couldn’t agree more!

At Early Childhood Ireland, we have been carrying out some new and exciting research about young children’s use of technology. The findings reveal that 75% of parents believe that technology has educational and other benefits for young children, but how much technology is healthy? How much time should young children spend in front of the screen? And do parents feel knowledgeable enough about technology to make good decisions in relation to its use? Now that Christmas is fast approaching and many children have the latest technology on their list to Santa, we have some guidelines, tips and food for thought to help families engage with technology in a healthy way over the festive season and beyond!

In a 2013 scientific paper the American Academy of Paediatrics revealed that today’s children are spending an average of seven hours a day on entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices. By the age of seven the average child will have spent a full year of 24 hour days watching recreational screen media, claims Aric Sigman, a leading psychologist who has investigated the consequences of excessive screen time on education, mental development and sleep. Sigman claims that over the course of childhood, children spend more time watching TV than they spend in school. These findings are also reflected in the latest research from the Growing Up in Ireland longitudinal study, which found that on average, only 58% of five-year-olds spent less than two hours in front of a screen on a weekday but 14% recorded more than three hours of screen time. We aren’t suggesting that parents throw out their TV’s or technological gadgets, but we do need to take a look at the way our children are interacting with screens and make some sensible decisions about their use.

So how much screen time is healthy for a young child under the age of 6? How much TV should a child watch? How many hours in front of a computer is too many hours? What types of programmes should we allow young children to watch? What types of apps should we allow them to download? To help us answer these questions, we asked 332 parents a series of questions relating to media and technology use within their home. The results were interesting:

  • Technology is now a very normal part of the Irish household, with 92% of parents reporting owning a TV, 89% have access to high-speed broadband, 77% have a tablet and 92% have a smart phone
  • 85% of children under 2 years of age have been exposed to TV or DVDs
  • 63% of parents have never received information on the use of media or technology in the home and 57% have never received advice on the amount of time a young child should spend engaged in screen based activities
  • 66% of parents believe its ok for a young child to use technology freely, while 20% feel that smart phones make parenting easier
  • 72% of parents believe that the purpose of their child watching TV is relaxation
  • 48% of parents report noticing a change in their child’s behaviour after using technology, this change in behaviour was mostly negative with parents reporting that their children were often overstimulated which resulted in a negative behaviour change. Parents used the following words to describe their child’s behaviour using technology; angry, moody, tired, emotional, passive, cranky, whiney, disengaged, less good humoured, zoned out, argumentative, agitated or challenging.

So how much screen time should children be allowed to access?

The simple answer: not much. In fact, none for children under two years of age. Experts suggest that babies and toddlers are restricted from any screens. We currently don’t have any official guidance in Ireland and we tend to look to other countries who have information in this area. In 2013, the US Department of Health released recommendations which advise that children under two years of age should not be in front of a screen at all, and over that age the maximum leisure screen time should be no more than two hours a day.

We know that a child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years of life, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens. Children aged 2-5 years should have no more than an hour a day. Of course, parents should be able to decide if these limits are too harsh, and allow some screen time flexibility. To help children make wise media choices, parents should monitor their “media diet”. Parents already make use of established ratings systems for shows, films and games to avoid inappropriate content, such as violence, explicit sexual content or glorified tobacco and alcohol use.

The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that parents establish “screen-free” zones at home by making sure there are no televisions, computers or video games in children’s bedrooms, and by turning off the TV during dinner.


Helpful pointers for parents

The following are some practical ideas which may be of use to parents as they embark on a healthy relationship with screens:

  • Agree a clear set of rules with your child on screen time in the home. Talk to your child about when you think it is appropriate and inappropriate to use screens. Agree times when screens are allowed and not allowed in the home. For example dinner time, homework time and bed time
  • Do as you say. Modelling behaviour is the most powerful way you can influence your child’s behaviour
  • Restrict the use of computers/devices in the bedroom
  • Try not to rely on screens too much to keep children amused. It can be easy to encourage children to pick up the tablet or play a game on the computer to keep them occupied. This only confuses rules on screen time. Try to stick to the agreed rules with your child and try to set a good example
  • Chat to your child about what they do online and encourage them to use their screen time for learning, education and fun
  • Pick one evening a week where you do a family activity together, whether it’s a film night or a games night. Doing activities together as a family will help implement screen time guidelines and offer fun alternatives
  • Don’t have screens always on in the background. Turn off TVs and Computers when not in use, these can be distracting for kids if they are trying to participate in another activity
  • Finally, join in, why not set some time aside to play your child’s favourite computer game and discover the online world together.


It’s not all bad!

In their latest set of key messages for parents, the American Academy of Paediatrics have reassuringly stressed that media is just another environment. Like any environment, media can have positive and negative effects. Emerging research from early childhood experts tells us that using technology sensibly can be effective in terms of engaging and empowering young children. When screen time is carefully monitored and quality content is viewed, it can be beneficial for children over 3 years of age. Furthermore, in terms of computer use, research tells us that children may benefit from appropriately selected software. By limiting screen time, offering educational media, non-electronic formats such as books and board games, and watching television with their children, parents can help guide their children’s media experience, putting questionable content into context and opening up discussions about how programmes and advertising which can later contribute to children’s media literacy.

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