A growing concern for many parents is their children being glued to screens and not spending enough time outdoors, being active or playing with friends and siblings. Marking Screen Free Week, we spoke to the experts about the impact of too much screen time and how to lessen it.
A recent study by Ofcom found 40% of parents said they struggled to control their child’s screen time, but as a parent it’s not always easy or straightforward to just take the iPad away.
Screen Free Week (2-8 May) is an annual event that encourages children, families, schools and communities to pause screen-based entertainment and to enjoy activities such as outdoor play, exploring and reading instead.
It’s important for children to enjoy an active lifestyle from an early age and the myriad benefits this provides for their physical and mental health, cognitive development and happiness.
Screen Free Week: How Much Screen Time is Too Much?
The COVID-19 pandemic caused children to spend more time on screens than ever before and the introduction of online learning means children now use screens for educational as well as recreational purposes.
Recent research published by media regulator Ofcom found that nearly all children (91%) went online in 2021 and the majority used a mobile phone (72%) or a tablet (69%) to do so. Ofcom’s research also found that although the majority (63%) of parents felt their child had a good balance between screen time and doing other things, 40% of parents said they struggled to control their child’s screen time.
Marking Screen Free Week this week, practicing GP and expert on family health and Gymfinity Kids Ambassador for Development Dr Ellie Cannon shares her advice to help alleviate parents’ main concerns about the impact of excessive screen time.
My child is having trouble sleeping. Could this be because they are having too much screen time?
Dr Ellie says: “As screen time is a stimulating activity, there is the possibility that it can affect children’s sleep. As a rule, it is best to allow children screen time earlier in the day and I recommend having a no-screen policy for children’s bedrooms, especially for those under the age of 10.
“For those children having difficulty sleeping, then I would suggest no screens in the one-two hours before bedtime. However, it is important to remember that children’s sleep can be affected by lots of other things too, including anxiety, pains, itching and noise. If your child is struggling to sleep, then it is important to consider these factors as well.”
I am worried that my child spends too much time gaming indoors and is not getting enough Vitamin D. What can I do about this?
“Gaming is fine for children in moderation and in some cases can be helpful for socialising,” says Dr Ellie.
“However, it is crucial to limit the amount of time children are allowed to spend gaming as it is a very sedentary activity and can be isolating.
“I would advise offering your child an alternative but equally fun outdoor activity such as biking, climbing, trampolining or Scouts to encourage children to get moving and to be active outdoors. Alternatively, if your children can walk to school then this is a great way to get children to exercise without them complaining that their gaming time is being compromised.
“Regardless of whether they enjoy gaming or not, I would recommend that all children take a Vitamin D supplement to support their growth and development.”
My child seems to prefer playing on an iPad than socialising with friends. Is this a bad thing?
Dr Ellie says: “Just like adults, not all children are natural extroverts and they do not all need to be social butterflies. However, it is important to offer children the opportunity to socialise because playing on an iPad is a sedentary and potentially isolating activity.
“Group activities are an easy way for children to socialise and be active simultaneously. Structured activities such as drama, Guides, Scouts or gymnastics and Ninja Knights classes like those offered at Gymfinity Kids are particularly good because they offer a seamless and enjoyable way for children to exercise and make friends.
“It’s easy for the iPad to become a default activity for children to pass the time but it is crucial to also encourage children to play, explore and to be as active as possible. When children do spend time playing on an iPad, I recommend establishing time limits to make sure it is enjoyed in moderation.”
What impact could too much screen time have on my child’s vision?
“Children’s screen time has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic after schools were forced to move learning online and children’s usual activities and sports clubs were forced to temporarily close,” says Dr Ellie.
“Unfortunately there are some health impacts from this – as is the case with adults, excessive screen time can cause eye strain in children which might take the form of headaches, dry or sore eyes and light sensitivity. In the worst cases, too much screen time can cause or worsen myopia (short sightedness).
“In fact, children are more likely to be short sighted now than they were 50 years ago which may in part be due to the increased amount of time we spend on screens. If you are concerned that your child may be suffering from myopia, then chat to a GP or optician.”
Should I be limiting my child’s screen time? If so, how do you recommend doing this?
“This depends on whether your child’s use of screen time is impacting their wellbeing – in moderation some screen time is absolutely fine,” emphasises Dr Ellie.
“I would consider screen time to be a real problem if it has started to affect your child’s participation in physical activity, socialising, family time, sleep or their physical health (e.g. their vision). If any of these essential parts of their wellbeing are being compromised by excessive screen time then it is time to set a strict limit.
“The limit should be a clear boundary that everyone sticks to, and it is important to remember that parents set an example for children. Try and make meals screen free for all the family, including parents, and I also recommend no screen use for children during the one-two hours before bedtime.”
What activities can I suggest to my child to encourage them to spend less time on a screen?
Dr Ellie suggests: “When offering children alternative activities to screen time, try to ensure they are face to face, offline and active. Much of children’s enjoyment of being online is centred around the community feeling it offers, so it is important to offer that sense of community offline too.
“Groups that offer a sense of community include sports, drama and youth clubs – any activity that presents the opportunity to socialise with friends.
“It is important not to offer activities that children will consider a lesser alternative to screens – make sure the alternative is equally fun and enjoyable. If you can, try to offer a choice of activities rather than an either-or between an activity and a screen.
“This will give children a sense of independence rather than causing them to feel as though they have been forced into an activity.”
My child has a tantrum every time I take away the iPad. How can I address this?
“If your child exhibits this type of behaviour, it is important to set clear and consistent boundaries as soon as possible,” says Dr Ellie.
“Regular tantrums indicate that they could be displaying early signs of screen addiction. This might sound like an extreme term, but is something that can be easily remedied and is better to address sooner rather than later.
“In terms of coping with your child’s tantrums, I recommend using lots of praise and try to suggest other activities to distract their attention from the iPad. If you have younger children, try using a sticker chart so they can visualise their progress and have the potential to receive a tangible reward.
“Unfortunately, it is likely the tantrums will continue for a week or two, but if you and all the other caregivers in your child’s life are consistent with the boundaries you implement, then your child will soon learn and the tantrums should stop.”
Screen Time for Toddlers
With young children the problem can be even more acute. Angela Spencer, author of Babyopathy, is keen to point out the difference between stimulating a toddler and overstimulation. “Although a baby’s nervous system is one of the first things to develop at two to three weeks after conception, it is one of the last to reach maturity.
“A newborn therefore reacts quickly to sensory stimulation and can easily become over stimulated. This response to stimulation continues to develop throughout the crucial first year of brain development and so it is vital that babies are not over stimulated. Even babies can be over stimulated by screens and miss the sleep they need to grow.”
According to The Times, research from the Sleep School has found that the number of children admitted to hospital for issues relating to lack of sleep has trebled in the past decade; it’s worth noting that the iPhone was launched approximately 10 years ago.
When young children swipe a touch screen, it’s almost endearing for observing adults, but the reality is it’s because he believes that anything he touches creates an immediate response.
He is used to the dopamine hit of creating a reaction through simply touching, which releases a feeling of pleasure. If a child gets used to that feeling, he will always prefer to interact with a screen over the real world.