“My boy is barely two but he’s so good at using the iPad and phone! He can’t even talk or read but knows how to get into YouTube and find his favourite song. How clever!”. If you find yourself singing such praises to your child, it’s not good news. The truth is that if your toddler is an iPad genius, you have a huge problem at hand.
Overexposure to screen time impedes a child’s development, social and language skills. Toddler screen time addiction is not something to be proud of.
A local study suggests that about 30 percent of infants below six months are regularly exposed to some form of screen time – television, mobile phone or tablet. “The average amount of time is 60 minutes a day,” said Dr Aishworiya Ramkumar, associate consultant at National University Hospital’s (NUH) Child Development Unit.
This figure increases and by the age of two, almost nine out of 10 children have regular screen time. This clearly shows that toddler screen time addiction is a significant problem.
Even more alarming than these figures is the issue of poor parental awareness pertaining to this matter. Only 20% of the parents surveyed had any idea of professional guidelines regarding screen time for children! And a significant 40% did not monitor their children’s screen-time use at all times.
The iPad debuted in 2010 and the subsequent boom in mobile touchscreen devices has profoundly altered what childhood means for this generation of children.
Why Does This Happen?
Almost every parent-to-be has sworn never to let their child have any screen time and as such, toddler screen addiction is something they cannot fathom. Many parents assume that such a situation would never occur in their household simply because they will not allow it to.
However, in reality, things don’t always go as planned. It’s almost impossible to entirely keep your children away from gadgets and screen time. Even if you are incredibly disciplined in the house and restrict the use of television and mobile phones in the presence of the baby, there will be some friend or relative who will eventually let them explore their gadgets. Trust me when I say this happens!
Children watch adults using their gadgets and it’s a matter of time before they get curious.
In other situations, when parents aren’t the primary caregivers, it’s also problematic. You make your expectations and instructions clear to your helper or the grandparents, but they don’t necessarily follow your rules.
Helpers may want to make their job easier, or grandparents may not be able to deal with your child’s insane energy levels. Working parents succumb to using screen time at times in a bid to manage busy schedules.
It happens. Saying that you will give your child zero exposure is idealistic and tantamount to fighting a losing battle. The key is in managing the exposure and not allowing toddler screen time addiction to happen.
Negative Effects Of Toddler Screen Time Addiction
Toddler screen time addiction causes them to be anti-social and appear ‘zoned out’.
Let’s take the example of Jack (not his real name). Prior to learning how to walk or talk, Jack was able to navigate touchscreen gadgets. He started out with 30 minutes of screen time a day and that rapidly escalated to a whopping six hours a day before he turned two. Talk about toddler screen time addiction!
Jack was examined by Dr Jennifer Kiing, senior consultant – NUH’s Child Development Unit, who said, “He had no meaningful words, had poor eye contact, did not respond consistently to his name and had a short attention span.”
There are many children suffering from similar consequences of toddler screen time addiction. While formal statistics that track the touchscreen effect in Singapore are not widely available yet, the first wave of negative effects in children with too much screen time is starting to surface.
Language And Social Delays
The most significant development issues in this group of pre-schoolers are language and social delays.
Ms Fiona Walker, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and principal of Julia Gabriel Education says that today’s pre-nursery children (who are turning three), appear less comfortable expressing themselves.
Teachers observed this by the informal chats with the children before they were enrolled. These chats are held with the aim of gauging the child’s conversational skills. Over the last year, there has been a surge in children who are less chatty.
If a toddler’s screen time addiction is not controlled, it is likely to affect the overall development and health of the baby in the long run.
Parents might want to note this important piece of information. A newborn’s brain triples in size in the first three years of life and experiences during this time are what shape the adult brain. While it might seem like screen time does have its benefits by exposing your child to an interactive world, it is but a myopic view of the world. It takes them away from day-to-day interaction with their environment!
Remember, screen time affects a child’s physical and mental health. Period. No two ways about it. And you cannot reverse the effects, or compensate it with physical activity. Giving a child 10 hours of physical activity does not do any form of damage control for 10 hours of screen time. It simply doesn’t work that way!
To Watch Or Not To Watch?
Given the ubiquity of digital technology, there are conflicting opinions about whether or not there should be zero screen time before the age of two. Some institutions and like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have relaxed their stance while others such as Dr. Kiing maintain their belief that :
Should you completely keep the phones away from your baby?
There is simply no place for digital technology in the life of a child before the age of two!
Screen Time Guidelines
The ultimate choice of whether or not you want a zero screen time policy, lies with you. However, here are some useful guidelines by AAP, to prevent toddler screen time addiction:
- Babies younger than 18 months – Avoid the use of screen media other than video chatting (with family members)
- Toddlers aged 18 to 24 months – Choose high-quality programming. Parents should watch it with their children to help them understand what they are seeing
- Preschoolers aged two to five years – Limit screen use to 1 hour per day, and to high-quality programmes. Parents should co-view with children.
- Children aged six and older – Place consistent limits on time spent using media, the types of media and ensure it does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviour essential to health
Signs Of Toddler Screen Time Addiction
Prevention is of course better than cure so do take all possible measures to prevent toddler screen time addiction. However, if you have already exposed your child to screen time, and especially if it’s excessive exposure, Dr Kiing says that these are some warning signs to look out for:
- Child has a massive meltdown whenever you take away the device
- Looks for any possible opportunity to use an electronic device
- Becomes aggressive or throws tantrums when he doesn’t get screen time
- Begs for more time on the device when you ask him to put it away
- Performance in school deteriorates
- Becomes more inattentive
So remember mums and dads, as Dr. Kiing cautions, “A toddler who knows how to swipe the device and enter a four-digit password is not a genius.” Dr. Kiing further says that the child is at risk for speech delay, attention and cognitive deficit if the screen time is not capped.
5 Ways To Reduce Your Toddler’s Screen Time During The Pandemic
As much as we’d like to take a break from mobile devices and reduce our collective screentime, the pandemic has made things all the more difficult. However, as adults and parents, we can take collective steps to reduce the time spent staring at the black mirror every day. Here are five ways you can reduce your toddler’s screen time.
1. Take Breaks From Your Mobile Devices
Image courtesy: iStock
While it’s easy to say that you need to take a break from mobile devices, the pandemic has made it extremely difficult. However, you need to start monitoring the amount of total screen time and putting a cap on each.
Modern-day smartphones offer the option to lock an app after a certain period in order to restrict screen time. In a way, the phone will force you to take a break and use your screen time more wisely.
For toddlers, this is extremely important as the addiction can lead to temper tantrums. Instead, explain the child beforehand about the mobile device being locked after a certain time. Allow them to mentally prepare to do something else and explore their curious side.
Use this opportunity to send your toddler to play in the sun and understand more of their natural surroundings.
Research suggests that constant screen time increases the risk of your child developing myopia (near-sightedness). However, a few hours in the sun will help reduce the same.
2. Make Mealtime A Family Time And Screen-Free
Image courtesy: iStock
With the parents and the child all at home and engaged in some activity or the other, it gets difficult to spend quality time with your family. This leaves the breakfast, lunch and dinner ideal times throughout the day to catch up with your child despite living together 24×7 during the pandemic.
Emphasise making mealtime a strict family time. This will require you to turn off all devices including mobile phones, TV, computer and more. Not only will you eat in peace but also savour the food with each bite.
As a principle, make sure you have at least one meal a day as a family not only to strengthen the bond but also to give your eyes some rest. Instead, concentrate on the lovely colours that your plate has.
In order to enforce this rule with your toddler, you will have to make sure you follow it yourself and keep the phones out of sight during mealtime.
3. Set The Screens Aside 2 Hours Before Bedtime
Image courtesy: iStock
As interesting as that movie may seem to your toddler, they need to turn off the devices at least two hours before bedtime. The blue light from televisions and other screens disrupt the natural sleep cycle.
Ideally, it would be great if you can dim the lights in your toddler’s room that will help set his natural body clock for sleeping. It also helps that the mobile device is not kept in the same room as the toddler to resist all kinds of temptation.
4. Read A Book Or Tell A Story
Image Source: Pexels
Your toddler is growing fast and is able to grasp a lot of knowledge growing up. It is highly recommended that you inculcate the habit of reading at this age. Before bedtime, you could read from a book to your toddler before bedtime.
Once the child grows older and is able to read on their own, make it a habit to read at least one chapter before they sleep. Reading at least one chapter makes sure the child is interested in the story and will go back to reading the next chapters on subsequent nights.
It would also be a good time to get acquainted with the books as opposed to e-readers. You also have the option of playing an audiobook to your toddler before bedtime. Let your child’s mind imagine the book and give his eyes some rest.
5. Take A New Hobby
A toddler’s mind is impressionable and they will adapt to whichever direction you put them in. That’s why you should cut down the screen time and invest in developing a hobby for your little one.
From learning music to drawing, painting or building Lego toys in their free-time during the day, the options are abundant and work well with staying at home. You can also use this as an opportunity to bond with your child by working on something together like solving a puzzle or creating new artwork. If nothing else, take a walk in a safe space
While online classes and shows, it’s hard to reduce the screen time in your toddler’s life. Nevertheless, it can certainly be moderated for their benefit.
Toddler screen addiction is a real and growing problem. Do your part to ensure that your child doesn’t fall prey to it.
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