By Doctor Nancy Le Nezet
Director of Studies at the Swiss International School of Qatar
“I think my daughter is getting too much screen time”, a friend of mine declared a few days ago, as we were settling down for a meal at the restaurant with our families. As she said this, she simultaneously proceeded to whip a tablet out of her handbag and place it in front of her toddler, “so that the adults could have a good chat”. I don’t blame her; I used the same strategy many times when my children were younger, and I too felt guilty about it.
Since then, however, I have researched the topic in depth, partly because this is something parents and colleagues had many questions about. As an educator and a scholar, I felt that I owed it to parents to have specific, scientific answers that would help them make informed decisions about the welfare and development of their children. What I found is, I believe, good news for parents.
Definition of “screen time”
First of all, we need to define carefully what we mean by “screen time”. There is a world of difference between a child who spends hours bent over a tablet watching Youtube videos unsupervised, and a child who is playing an age-appropriate video game with a sibling. “Screen time” is too vague a term: it can include television, games, videos, homework on computers, educational apps etc. The kind of screen time a child is getting is actually more relevant than the time spent on a screen as such. The following rules can help parents be more discerning about their children’s “screen time”.
Screen time that can be beneficial includes:
- Educational apps and, for older children, anything to do with coding
- Age-appropriate, interactive video games, especially if they require fast
multitasking or involve building: these can help develop fine motor skills and
improve cognitive functions
- Games that can be played with others
- Games that involve a physical component (such as Wii Sports, excellent for
motor skills and hand-eye coordination)
- Appropriate films watched as a family, as a special time together
Screen time that should be limited includes:
- Any screen time that is not interactive (watching TV or videos)
- Screen time that involves no interaction with others
Screen time that should not be permitted includes:
- Watching online videos or using the internet with no supervision
- Playing games that are not age-appropriate
Negative effects of “screen time”
A second, important key to understanding this issue is to think about what children are not doing while they are getting “screen time”. For example, when my son plays football outside for hours, as he does almost every day, I have no problem with him coming home to play a few video games on his console. If he has just watched an entire film with his sister, however, I tend to steer him away from the video games, because I feel it is time for him to be active.
Screen time becomes a problem when it prevents children from doing sports, playing with their friends or siblings, playing outside, reading, doing their homework or communicating with others, face to face.
In the case of my friend’s toddler at the restaurant, I gently suggested that we spend a little bit of time playing with her and reading her a book before our meal arrived. Her daughter was all smiles and babble, and then she got very busy making an extraordinary mess with her food and getting lots of laughs and attention for it; none of this would have happened had she been stuck on a tablet. After the meal, she did get a little restless and grumpy, at which point her mother gave her the tablet to play with so we could have a conversation over coffee. I thought this was a balanced way to deal with the issue of screen time, and I got to have fun with both the little girl and her mother!
Positive effects of “screen time”
A final aspect of the debate on screen time is that we must recognise that technology is not going to go away. Keeping our children away from screens altogether will, in the long term, keep them away from many opportunities. Screens have replaced libraries, dictionaries, textbooks, educational documentaries and so on: it would never cross our mind to ban these sources of knowledge, so why would we ban the screens that have replaced them?
However, we also have a responsibility to show our children what an appropriate and balanced use of technology looks like. By far the most powerful tool we have to raise our children is our own behaviour: children copy what they see, much more so than they listen to what they are told. In other words, if we tell our children to stay away from their screen, but we spend hours on our phone or computer in front of them, we are wasting our breath.
Small details like putting our phone down when we have a conversation, giving children our full attention and eye contact when we greet them, or forbidding screens at the dinner table for the entire family, can make a big difference. I cannot tell you how many times I have hidden my phone under a cushion and ostentatiously picked up a book when I heard my children coming home!
Computers and tablets are, in many ways, better than the television sets they are quickly replacing: the experience they offer is much less passive, more challenging for our brains and bodies, and altogether more educational. Instead of banning or severely restricting screen time, let’s become the technology-savvy parents our children need: discerning, informed, available and balanced in our own use of technology.
Sources and recommended readings on screen time:
Common Sense Media: How much screen time is OK for my kids?
Healthline: Which type of screen time is most harmful to kids?
Five Thirty Eight: “Screen time” for kids is probably fine
JAMA Network: Interactive media use at younger than the age of two Parents.com: Pediatricians change their recommendations about screen time American Academy of Pediatrics: Beyond “turn it off”: How to advise families on media use
Adam Gazzaley’s brilliant work on video games and the brain BBC’s Horizon: How video games can change your brain
Raise smart kids: The positive and negative effects of video games