Why not all screen time is the same for children

Screens are a fixture in children’s lives from a young age, but giving them access to television, tablets or phones doesn’t always mean it will have a negative impact on their development.

Before my toddler could even talk she knew which phone belonged to me, and which belonged to her dad. They looked almost identical but she screamed if anyone except me touched my mobile. Even if she saw me pass it to someone so I could show them a picture, it would result in a spectacular meltdown.

In her world, my phone was a part of me in much the same way as my shoes or clothes were, because it was almost always by my side, and she was clearly doggedly protective of my possession.

Realizing this was a sobering moment, but it reflects the reality that screens are part of our everyday lives like never before. While I try my best to minimize how much I use my phone, it’s still incomparably helpful for directions, checking social media, doing the online food shop, listening to audio books and so on. As none of my daughter’s grandparents live nearby, it’s also a crucial way for us to stay in touch, especially given that I haven’t seen my mother since 2019 due to lockdown and travel restrictions.

Our screens are pervasive, so it’s inevitable that our children pick up on this quickly, easily and intuitively. My baby even knew – almost as if by instinct – that by swiping my phone, something would light up. Before he even turned one, he seemed to have picked up on this.

We know screens are extremely addictive too, they shape our children’s minds in ways we are now slowly starting to understand. It’s not all bad, but it’s far from good either, and learning how to use screens better, or knowing when to stop, will have lasting positive consequences.

How outside influences might warp our children’s thoughts is not a new worry. Even Plato was concerned that poetry and drama might affect young minds. And similar worries appeared ever since televisions became a staple in family homes. Parents warned of square-eyed, TV-addicted, children. It’s perhaps why Roald Dahl in 1964 wrote in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:

“So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,

“Go throw your TV set away,

“And in its place you can install

“A lovely bookshelf on the wall.”

While we know reading is beneficial for a range of cognitive abilities, at the same time, children are growing up in a world where screens are everywhere. Their screen use therefore paints a somewhat worrying picture. Estimates suggest that children aged 0 to two years engage in more than three hours of screen time per day, a figure that has doubled in the past two decades. Another study showed that for school-aged children, 49% had more than two hours screen time, and 16% had over four hours.

Screen time can come at the cost of reduced physical activity, increased BMI, and fewer family meals together. It is also linked to less sleep in children as well as adults. Children who have a TV in their room have been found to sleep 31 minutes less per day, for instance.

Read further at bbc.com/future

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