Today, children are being born into a digital age where technological innovation has changed things faster than we can even imagine. First television, then personal computers and video gaming, and now smartphones and tablets, technology has permeated children’s lives like never before, and has done so at a young age.
If we go by recent studies, children as young as six months are being exposed to mobile devices, and by age one, at least one in seven children is using these devices for almost an hour a day. Also, children’s overall screen time has more than doubled since 1999, to over seven hours a day!
Digital devices, which are accessible at any time and from anywhere, are fast becoming a culture at home, school, college and work. In such a scenario, it is next to impossible to restrict children from engaging in various kinds of screens. Moreover, recent studies have shown that screen time can actually be beneficial in early childhood. Screens like iPads and smartphones can be used in ways that encourage cognitive, language and social development in children.
That said, it is also extremely important to assess the risks associated with children having too much screen time, because neuroscience research clearly establishes that young children need first-hand engagement for optimal growth. They need to play, manipulate objects physically, engage all their senses, imagine and fantasies, and interact with the 3-dimensional world. Screens, which don’t involve a child’s whole body, brain, and senses, take time away from the activities that are critical for brain development and future learning.
During the first five years of life, the most essential neuronal connections are activated in the brain, and as children grow, everything they experience affects the quantity and quality of these connections. Passively sitting in front of a screen for hours and hours limits brain activity and inhibits the growth of these connections, and leads to slower cognitive development, delayed language acquisition, and long-term academic failure. Besides, when children are engaged with screens, the brain releases neurotransmitter dopamine, which encourages addictive behaviour and lowers attention span.
It also has a detrimental effect on children’s social and emotional well-being. By engaging with devices that do not reciprocate, children are failing to learn the ability to interact with others face-to-face, listen and respond appropriately to conversations as well as interpret human emotions. Moreover, children who are exposed to violent media on TV screens and in video games tend to exhibit aggression and often carry out similar aggressive imitations in their daily lives.
Experts believe that rather than feeling guilty about exposing children to screens and exercising total abstinence, parents should make educated and informed decisions about how to integrate technology into their lives without allowing it to take over completely. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics has softened its strict instruction of no screen time before the age of two and no more than two hours a day for older children. In its revised guidelines, the organisation says that while parents still need to set reasonable limits on the usage of screens, they must also pay attention to how their children are engaged with these screens.
Latest studies show that children learn more when their screen experience mirrors a live two-way communication. This means that active engagement and interaction with children during screen time can significantly enhance the educational value of the media they are watching. For example, when a child is passively watching television or a video on YouTube, there’s not much activity happening in the brain. However, when she is engaged in a video chat with a family member, a whole lot of brain cells are being activated, and contributing towards her cognitive and language development.
It’s equally important to keep an eye on what children are watching. Do your homework and try to curate high-quality, educative, non-violent and age appropriate content for your child. Use your judgment consult ratings reviews to collect media that is geared towards children and shows real characters in real situations. It is also vital to recognize when to turn the screens off. Create tech-free zones and media free times at home by ensuring there are no televisions, computers, video games, tablets or laptops on the dinner table or inside children’s bedrooms.
When children watch or interact with screens, they only see a representation of things in the real world. The pre-programmed virtual games with apps and computers require children to play according to someone else’s rules and design. On the contrary, real time play allows children to take initiative and make their own rules, experiment and ask questions, and create and solve their own problems. For this reason, it is essential to ensure that screen time does not take over your child’s play. Give your children ample opportunities to explore, experiment, and discover by replacing televisions, smart phones and gaming consoles with blocks, puzzles, board games and books.
While technology and screens will keep changing at a rapid rate, parenting will not. The same parenting rules apply to children’s real and virtual environments. By exercising the real life rules of setting limits and being involved in children’s lives, we can ensure that our little ones are exposed to technology in a way that helps rather than harms them.