Screen time (out?)
Last night my normally quite shy and bashful teenage son ventured outside into a barren, unforgiving landscape and ran riot on a no holds-barred, violent, sadistic rampage. While I was reclining on a cosy living room sofa watching the ITV Evening News, he was busy pumping bullets through victims’ heads at point blank range with his no scope triple pump action shotgun!
Should I be worried about this? Well, maybe. Or maybe it’s better to just be aware.
With the UK experiencing its third lockdown in under a year in February 2021, our children, will in all likelihood be spending more time than usual in front of the dreaded computer, smartphone or TV screen. And that’s after heaven knows how many hours of home schooling online.
Most of us old enough to have tweens in the house, will remember the mantra of our childhoods that “watching too much television will make your eyes go square” or some such. Now the choice of screens to be glued to is significantly wider; not just literally in size but variety too: over 900,000 consoles were sold in the UK last November. From Fortnite to Fifa 21, Netflix to Amazon Prime; Tik Tok, to WhatsApp, Roblox to Among Us all these megapixels are now competing for attention.
But just how detrimental is this to the overall well-being of tweens and teens and are there any significant lasting effects?
The British Psychological Society warns that “too much screen time can unintentionally cause permanent damage to still-developing brains.” They also advise that when using screens “the ability to focus, to concentrate… to sense other people’s attitudes and communicate with them, to build a large vocabulary… are harmed.”
However there are also some plus sides
Screens can however also be social, interactive and provide escapism. They can be an opportunity to connect with friends and other family members; they can also at times offer a welcome break and respite from the challenges and anxiety that lockdown and separation from peers can bring.
Let's also not forget that it’s valuable for today’s generation to be “tech savvy” when it comes to the workplace.
With new research suggesting that four in five parents think gadgets are beneficial for their children’s development, how do we maintain a healthy balance?
So, how much screen time should tweens and teens have daily?
Unfortunately there is no universally agreed on answer to this, as there is a lack of evidence when it comes to imposing time limits for children over the age of five. But the well-respected Internet Matters reports that whilst there is no 'safe level' of screen time, this doesn’t mean that all screen time is harmful. What is more useful is to distinguish between types of online activity and how your children uses that time, and importantly how they responds when asked to take breaks from screens.
Some warning signs to watch out for; if your tween or teen is consistently behaving in this way:
- becoming angry and sullen when asked to take breaks from screen
- being secretive about the time they spend online
- poor sleep and feeling tired all the time
- becoming withdrawn and unwilling to spend time with people IRL (in real life)
If you don't fancy the idea of another battle over screen-time; talk to your tween or teen about this and agree on some boundaries together.
Some key tips to consider:
Don’t allow screens into a tween or teen’s bedroom - it could risk their cognitive development, physical health and lead to disturbed sleep.
Make sure there’s a gap between devices and bedtime.
Consider creating media-free zones in your house, including gadget-free and TV-free dinners.
Agree screen time limits with them rather than imposing them - whilst a quick internet search will give you the information you need to set up screen limits on almost any device, if your child is tech-savvy they'll figure out how to disable that anyway!
Encourage them to take breaks. To limit eye strain they should ideally look away from screens for 20 seconds every 20 minutes to a distance of 20 feet.
Set an example
Set a good example, make sure you communicate face to face, after all you’re their primary role model.
Don’t ignore youngsters at the expense of doing something else (benign neglect), If you possibly can, engage in their world and take interest in what they’re doing.
Understand their screen usage
Look at the sites, games and YouTube content they’re watching. That way you can filter out unwanted content and track any obvious signs of cyberbullying or grooming.
Photo by Daniel Romero on Unsplash
So... help! What's the alternative?!
Many experts agree with advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that, where possible, screen time should be replaced with physical activity, parental interaction or more sleep.
According to the BBC, Sports England have reported a worrying dip in children exercising for the recommended 60 minutes or more each day to 44.9%, with a loss of motivation and confidence.
Exercising produces endorphins that make tweens and teens happy, while keeping fit and active has a proven link to good health in later life. Dare I say Joe Wicks?
If you like gadgets a fun idea is to maybe invest in an activity tracker, from the likes of Fitbit. As well as fitness, explore the multitude of extra-curricular hobbies: art projects, cooking tips, gardening, science experiments, craft, fishing, sport, Lego, kites, collecting, bird watching, astronomy, photography, music, walking the dog or just plain old reading... you name it, it’s all viable.
Or, bear with me on this, how about persuading them to do chores? I’m off my rocker, right? Or maybe it’s a neat idea. Helping out around the house, tidying up, learning some basic cooking skills, laying the table, emptying the dishwasher, hanging out clothes... these skills create a break from the bright light and set tweens and teens up nicely for dealing with later life.
And if you can get your nearest and dearest off their console, phone, laptop or tablet and doing any of this without an argument, whine, whinge, quibble, groan, moan, a tirade of shouty swearing or a minor altercation you are a saint, a hero and a deity! Or possibly all three at once.
Best of luck. I’m off for a screen break.
Chris Skeat; freelance writer; father of two boys; working in education