Children need humans and not screens


In these challenging times when the pandemic has forced many across the globe to remain within specified confines, children are experiencing major changes in routine that may negatively impact their health and well-being. It is, as such, important to limit their recreational screen time.

It is important to have a balanced approach to screen time by making sure that children use screens in a balanced way as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Not too little, not too much but just the right amount of screen time is what your kids need because controlling a child's screen time can be challenging.

As kids are growing up with smartphones, tablets, and other electronic devices, here are some tips on limiting child's screen usage on daily basis as it affects early childhood development.

Screen time

Screen time means "time spent in sedentary behaviours such as viewing television, playing video games, and using computer and smartphones". In today's word, children are "digital natives" born in an era of evolving technology where screen time is embedded in their daily lives. In recent times it is impossible to not have screens at home but there are ways how excess exposure can be regulated to ensure healthy childhood development.

Appropriate screen time for children

The World Health Organization (WHO) guideline recommends no screen exposure to children less than 2 years old and not more than 1 hour of screen time for children 2 to 4 years of age.

In addition to that, in a 24-hour day:

- Infants less than 1 year should also be physically active and engaged in e.g., interactive floor-based play or at least 30 minutes in prone position (tummy time)

- Children above 1 year of age should spend at least 180 minutes in a variety of types of physical activity.

- To avoid sedentary behaviors children below 6 years should not be restrained for more than 1 hour at a time (e.g., strollers, high chairs, or strapped on a caregiver's back). When the child is not engaged in any form of physical activity reading, storytelling, colouring and social games with a caregiver is encouraged.

- Good quality sleep is equally essential with a minimum of 10 to 13 hours of sleep for all children below 6 years.

Effects of excess screen time on childhood development

- We know that there are many potential benefits of digital technology but for pre-schoolers health and developmental risks outweigh the benefits.

Obesity, headache, eye problems, back ache and sleep disturbances are some of the commonly seen health issues when screen time is excessive.

- Environmental factors, parent child interaction and real life experiences have a profound influence on a child's development and learning. Hence, increased screen time could potentially deprive the child's environment leading to language delay, inability to apply what the child has learnt through screen in real life situations, poor school readiness, attention, memory, reading difficulties and deficits in social interactions and communication. Behavioral problems such as high emotional reactivity, aggression and temper tantrums could also be the consequences of excess screen exposure.

- For children younger than 2 years their understanding of content on 2-dimensional screens is limited. They can imitate and recall actions performed by a person on a screen or imitate sign language but cannot learn new knowledge at less than 30 months of age without a real-life adult helping them learn.

- Play and human interaction is the key to a child's overall development. Therefore, digital media and learning cannot be a substitute for shared parent-child experiences, interaction and learning.

Suggestions and recommendation for parents to navigate excess screen time

- Setting aside a time for using screen – setting clear boundaries around the amount, content time of the day screen is used.

- Setting screen free time and zones – avoiding screen use during mealtimes and one-hour before bedtime.

- Parents should watch and play with digital media together with their children i.e., co viewing. This creates an opportunity for parent child interaction, sharing of experiences, commenting on the video, asking open ended questions instead of commenting on the digital device e.g. tap that, push this, switch to right etc.

- Help the child apply knowledge gained from apps or TV programs in real life situations.

- Supervision and monitoring of screen use and uninstall those that are violent or age inappropriate.

- Children should be encouraged to involve in creative activities and play such as drawing, colouring, storytelling, craft work, playing with blocks etc.

- Parents to serve as role models and be aware of their own screen time and always be available when the child is trying to speak or interact with him/her. Parent's should set their children as priority rather than screen.

Lockdown specific strategies

As children are exposed to excessive screen time during the lockdown, In these challenging times for parents and children , globally. The COVID-19 pandemic has exaggerated excessive screen use (online classes, use of social media, playing video games) among children. Furthermore, homes have become workplaces as the culture of work from home/online work has taken over in most parts of the world. This makes it even more difficult for parents to model appropriate behaviour.

Nevertheless, parents could apply few strategies to limit increased screen exposure such as:

- Channelize children's curiosity and energy by involving them in household chores and exercise. Making arrangements for indoor play activities and playing board games.

- Introduce new hobbies

- Maintain a structured routine

- Self-care: parents to take time out for themselves (relaxing or engaging in doing things they like) to be able to care for children adequately.

Dr Utkarsh Karki is a Consultant at Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Unit in Kanti Children's Hospital.