Too much screen time damages the brains of young children

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Parents, has it ever occurred to you how far technology has come?

Technology has pervaded every aspect of our lives, including that of our children. It’s almost like they’re born with a “tech gene,” with even babies knowing how to swipe device screens. However, a recent discovery by scientists should get all parents very worried. They’ve found out that too much screen time damages the brain of young kids.

Aptly named Screen Dependency Disorder, it is related to Internet Addiction Disorder.

A recent study found out that about 30% of infants below six months old are regularly exposed to screen time (on average, 60 minutes daily). By the age of two, almost nine out of 10 children have regular screen time, potentially exposing them to developing this disorder.

Alarmingly, the parents who were surveyed in the study are also hardly aware of this issue. So, what exactly is Screen Dependency Disorder and what can we do about it?

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Children are getting exposed to technology at a much younger than age than ever before.

Screen Dependency Disorder

There are many tangible signs of screen dependency disorder  when too much screen time weakens your child’s cognitive and physical development.

Do take note if your child exhibits any of these red flags:

  • Being preoccupied with their device and becoming aggressive with its absence.
  • Withdrawal symptoms such as crying when you do not let them access their device.
  • Not stopping screen activities even after you tell them to.
  • Losing interest in playing outside, deteriorating in school performance, and increased inattentiveness.
  • Continuing screen time despite negative consequences.
  • Maximising every chance they can get to use a device such as lying about how much they use these devices.
  • Using devices to escape adverse moods and begging you for more time on the device when you ask him to put it away.

How Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain of a Developing Child

A new study found that young children who were exposed to too much screen time have: 

  • less sleep and less ability to focus. This leads to an unhealthy sleep cycle as kids sleep more during the day and less at night. In fact, for every 15 minutes the child uses a smart device, they lose 60 minutes of sleep.
  • longer speech delays with increased screen time.
  • various physical problems — weight loss/gain, insomnia, headaches, poor nutrition and eyesight problems.
  • various emotional problems, like anxiety, loneliness, guilt, self-isolation, mood swings and agitation. 

Ultimately, it is the long term effects of persistent symptoms that are concerning, as too much screen time damages the brain of a developing child.

Studies have shown that screen dependency disorder shrinks children’s brains, affecting their planning and organization, among others.

There are also health consequences to adults, teens, and tweens too. However, they are more pronounced in children because their brains are still developing. 

How then, can we limit screen time in children (and adults) alike?

Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain of a Developing Child : What Can We Do About It?

There are some ways to limit screen time as advised by experts. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have now revised their guidelines on children and screen time. Recently, they have declared that it is safe for children to have some screen time, provided that all parents observe the following 12 key points:

Guidelines by the American Academy of Pediatrics

Be a Good Parent

1. Media is just another environment, and can have both positive and negative effects.

2. The same parenting rules still apply, in the real or virtual world. Feel free to play with them and set limits.

3. Role modelling is critical. Children mimic behaviour they see in grown-ups. As the parent, limit your own media usage, model online etiquette and lead by example. 
 
4. Two way communication is crucial for language development. Watching passive video presentations will not lead to effective language learning and will never replace live interactions.
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Two-way conversations can help a child learn about body language — which apps can’t teach.

5. Content quality matters. It’s more important than the platform or how much time is spent. Always monitor what your child watches.
6. Do some research about which apps are truly educational. A good place to start is trusted organisations such as Common Sense Media review age-appropriate apps, games and programs for your little ones. 

Instill Family and Home Habits

7. Have family participate in using technology, as it helps with social interactions and learning. By playing a video game with your kids (essential for toddlers and infants), your own perspective affects how they understand their media experience.

8. Allocate offline playtime activities daily, as it is necessary for your child’s development and creativity. 

9. Set limits if your child’s technology seems to hinder their participation in other activities.

10. Give your teen some freedom to express themselves online. Teach them how to be a responsible digital citizen by using the internet wisely. 

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Remember, social media can actually support their identity formation.

11. Create tech-free zones, such as during mealtimes or bedroom tech-free. Limiting tech use in certain times can encourage family time, healthier eating habits and even healthier sleep. 

12. Empathise with their mistakes, whether online or offline, and teach them to view these these as learning points. However, serious problems that involve sexting or posting self-harm images is a red flag, and needs to be assessed for other risk-taking behaviours.

Parental Tips for Reducing Screen Time 

The new policy statement may allow kids of all ages to have some screen time, but that doesn’t mean children should watch the screen for hours on end without adult supervision. Here are some other parenting tips that might help: 

1. Lead by Example by Showing Them What Social Etiquette Is

If you are around your children, put aside your devices and increase the amount of face-to-face interactions. Interacting with an adult lets a child hone their conversation skills, social etiquette and pick up on facial and non-verbal cues.

 
No mobile app on the market can teach these things. You can also become a role model of a good online citizen. Cultivate good social etiquette by communicating about online citizenship and safety and treating others with respect, whether online or offline.

2. Schedule Purposeful Usage, According to Their Age

Sometimes, smart devices teach better than old fashioned coaching. However, parents will need to schedule the use of IT devices for their children and time it accordingly.

 
The AAP advises the following age-by-age guide:

  1. For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. 
  2. Children aged from two to five years should limit screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should also watch it with their children to help them understand what they are seeing.
  3. Older children (above six years old) should have consistent limits on screen time. Ensure that the media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviours essential to health. 

3. Allow Them to be Bored Without IT

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The good old playground, playing catch and hide and seek always beats technology fatigue!

 
Do not schedule those timings to coincide with meal times, even if it keeps children well-behaved. Children need time to be bored.
 
Having multiple devices at home risks over-stimulation in children and being unable to cope with boredom. This, in turn, leads to short attention spans and a lot of fidgeting in classrooms. Implement “rest times” which consists of non-IT entertainment, such as building Lego models or playing board games with siblings.
 
So remember mums and dads, children are not “geniuses” by knowing how to enter a four-digit password. “The child is in trouble and at risk of speech delay, attention and cognitive deficits if screen time is not kept in check,” as quoted by Dr Jennifer King, senior consultant at the NUH’s Child Development.

At the same time, Claudette-Avelino-Tandoc, a Family Life and Child Development specialist and Early Childhood Education consultant, highlights that the devices are not inherently hazardous.

Rather, she feels that “They are useful and essential tools for communication, research, learning, entertainment. Parents are dealing with 21st century learners and so they should their kids to manipulate these tools. However, balance is the key word.”