Do you have Wi-Fi?” was the first question my young guest asked as soon as he arrived in our home.
“No, we don’t,” I said with a smile. I pulled a little white lie there upon his mother’s instructions. Unfortunately, he immediately caught me when his device detected our home’s Wi-Fi network.
The next request was for the password, but his mom jumped in and said the Wi-Fi wasn’t free, and we would have to pay for it. I heard a little grumbling, but in the end, he seemed to have accepted it.
I guess his mom has been prepared, since her game plan for the summer was to keep her son away from his device as much as possible.
Just to be clear, I do not run an anti-technology camp at home. I have rules for my kids, but I never impose them on other people’s children. Our guests are certainly free to use our Internet, and I would be a hypocrite if I said it isn’t a part of my husband’s and my daily routine.
However, for a growing number of children here and abroad, “screen time” is steadily rising. It’s a popular term that describes activities done in front of a screen.
It usually refers to nonphysical activities such as watching TV and videos, playing games on a computer/device, surfing the Internet or using social media applications and websites.
Screen time in itself is not bad. Moderate screen time is a normal part of mostly everybody’s life. It can be very productive when used for work, research or keeping in touch with loved ones. It can also be used for unwinding or relaxing.
While most adults can regulate their screen time, children cannot be expected to do the same; and left on their own, kids can easily lose track of time and spend half the day in front of a device or TV.
A recent study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in the US revealed that children ages 8 to 18 now spend an average of 7 ½ screen time hours for entertainment.
If you add up those hours, that’s equivalent to 114 days a year! That’s a lot of time that could have been used for learning or developing and pursuing other interests.
But aside from the time factor, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) believes that excessive screen time can also “lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity.”
Thus, AAP recommends no screen time for children ages 0 to 2. Most doctors agree that even videos created for babies are not necessary or beneficial for their brain development. The brain is the only organ not fully developed at birth, but 90 percent of a child’s critical brain development happens within the first five years.
From 0 to 3, children grow and learn at the most rapid rate and create an amazing amount of connections among their brain neurons called synapses. As children grow, many of these synapses will be “trimmed off,” some pushed back and others strengthened, depending on the brain activity and stimulation a child gets.
Artificial stimulation from a screen is usually too quick and may train a baby or toddler’s developing brain to get used to the unrealistic speed and stimulation, affecting the foundation of learning in later life.
One or two hours
I once attended a talk where the speaker made a point that I never forgot. She asked if we had ever tried making a baby sit still and stare out a window for 30 minutes. We all laughed at the impossibility of such a task. Everyone agreed it is simply not in the nature of a baby or a very child to do so.
And yet, she pointed out, that that is exactly what babies and children do when we put them in front of a screen, which leads one to wonder, what is going through their brains as they sit there?
For children above 2 years old, AAP recommends a maximum of one to two hours screen time. However, in today’s media-bombarded world, this is easier said than done, and it’s a dilemma for parents to try to find a way to limit their children’s screen time.
Not all screen time is bad. Parents need not try to eliminate it, although if a child is truly not interested in screen time for entertainment, why do it at all?
But in general, it’s normal for a child to use the computer for homework or perhaps watch a video or play a game as a treat after a week of exams or for having fulfilled whatever conditions were given.
What parents can look to eliminate is the “casual” screen time, usually spent flipping through channels and watching whatever is on, spending too much time playing games or mindlessly surfing the Internet for hours.
These casual screen time hours are usually what eats up what can be used for exercise, actual socialization, other activities or rest.
The TV is the number one culprit of screen time among children, while for older kids and teenagers, it is the computer or other mobile devices. While it is easy to keep a baby from having any screen time, older children are a different story.
However, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, children whose parents set rules and guidelines to limit screen time “consumed an average of three hours less media a day”—which means, with the right rules, screen time can be dramatically reduced in a child’s life.
How to cut down
Here are tips from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the AAP on how to cut down screen time:
1. Set a limited screen time of one to two hours a day, depending on how old your children are.
If your rules are clear and consistent from the start, children will learn to choose what to use their allotted screen time on, whether it be video games, movie or social media. You can help them decide what program they want to watch in advance, so that as soon as it is over, you can turn off the TV and move on to other activities.
2. Do not allow screen time during meal times.
Is it just me or is it getting harder to keep media off the dinner table? Once upon a time, it was simply about not bringing a TV tray up to the family room. Then people started having TV sets in the kitchen, so it became about not keeping it on in the background as the family ate. But now, with mobile devices that parents and children alike have, it’s about keeping devices off the table and refraining from picking up one’s phone every time it beeps or taking off one’s headsets at the table.
3. Implement a no-screen time rule during study hours unless they are researching.
I have no doubt in the ability of teenagers to multitask and get their homework done as they update their Instagram, go through their Facebook feed and watch a movie all at the same time; but at the end of the day, it all adds up to their casual screen time, and can lead to a lack of concentration and poor grades.
4. Set the screen time, preferably only after all work and extracurricular activities have been accomplished.
I once read that US First Lady Michelle Obama employs this rule with her two daughters. They are not allowed screen time at all on weekdays, unless it is school-related. However, they have limited screen time on weekends—but only after they have completed their homework, chores, sports, games and other activities the First Lady encourages them to do.
According to Mrs. Obama, more often than not, by the time her daughters are done with everything they need to do, they end up with very little, or no more time at all, to watch TV or go online because by then, it’s already dinner time.
5. Eliminate all screens from bedrooms.
This refers not only to TV sets. It also covers handheld devices. Sometimes, a two-minute quick check on one’s social media right before bedtime can turn into a two hour-surfing. If you must keep a smartphone at bedside for emergencies, insist that the data network be turned off, or turn off your home’s Wi-Fi.
6. Set a good example.
We can hardly expect our children to follow these rules if they see us draped on the couch all day in front of the TV or surfing online until the wee hours. Give yourself a limit, and spend the time off screen with your children, discovering new interests together and building memories.