How can we save our kids from screen addiction, which soared during the pandemic?

A child playing on an iPad (CNN)

A child playing on an iPad (CNN)

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Enab Baladi-Diana Rahima

Amir, a seven years old child, shows violent behavior and angry outbursts when his mother, Nour, refuses to let him watch TV or play on his iPad. Moreover, he does his virtual homework only if his mother allows him to spend at least five hours straight on screens.

Amir’s mother, Nour, told Enab Baladi that even on special family occasions, her children spend a significant part of their playtime with their peers on screens amid the absence of traditional children’s games, which include physical activities.

In the past, TV stations used to broadcast children’s cartoons and shows within a scheduled period of time, commensurate with the school education systems in each country, in an attempt to minimize the negative side effects of too much-unorganized screen time. Unfortunately, the new digital devices, which display their content 24 hours a day, thanks to the available access to the internet, undermined efforts to monitor time spent staring at screens. Children can use technology, turning it into a habit that can be practiced at any time and without limits. Moreover, the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, and the shutdown of traditional schools accelerated the embracement of digital learning immensely. Thus, children’s screen time soared during the pandemic.

 Pediatric psychiatrist Alaa Daly told Enab Baladi that children’s misuse of technology—children often use technology for playing video games and watching videos— poses great dangers to their mental health, especially at young ages, the stage when the children are developing their language and social skills in order to interact and communicate with others. 

Children’s mental health is also affected by the overuse of technology. Video games, in particular, have a harmful effect on their attention and concentration. While playing video games, children are completely detached from their surroundings. In other words, they cannot focus on their daily life activities, including physical ones, or connect with their families appropriately.  

Prolonged TV viewing and digital game playing also inhibit the child’s ability to communicate and interact with other children, which is essential at this age. Excessive screen time may also lead to depression, anxiety, addictive behavior regarding the internet, sensitivity, anger outbursts, separation from reality, and lack of acceptance of real-life and interaction with its events.

Alternative solution

Pediatric psychiatrist Alaa Daly said that one of the methods to mitigate potential risk factors for children, including their spending too much time on digital screens, is to find other non-screen activities for children to become involved. This means extra parent-child bonding activities. Parents should spend more quality time with their children; they should communicate with their children openly and effectively, carry out at-home activities, and minimize the amount of time children spend on their devices alone or while watching TV. In addition, parents have to limit and monitor their children’s usage of digital devices in general. 

Furthermore, parents should give their children space and freedom to express themselves and do their favorite activities. They have to offer them guidance, support, and encouragement while undertaking their activities. Children should play and communicate with other children, for this is so important for promoting their social development and building their personalities. 

  Parental control apps

Sameh, a seven-year-old child, used to spend too much time in front of screens. To solve this problem, his mother downloaded an app on his tablet called “Family link” that helps control and monitor screen time. 

The app helps Sameh’s mother limit her child’s screen time to only three hours a day. Then, the device will shut off automatically after the end of the specified time.

Sameh sometimes gets angry when his limited screen time is over. However, he is no longer experiencing temper tantrums, especially after realizing that he cannot ignore or bypass screen time limits. Instead, he can spread out the time he spends with screens for self-entrainment. 

What does too much screen time do to kids?

When kids use screens excessively, it can lead to emotional outbursts, difficulties creating and maintaining friendships, concentration difficulties, isolation, anxiety, restlessness, and losing interest in studies and hobbies.

Too much screen time can also displace physical activity and increase the risk of weight gain, and sometimes obesity.  

How is much screen time ok for children?

The Canadian Pediatric Society(CPS)points out :

  • Screen time for children under two years is not recommended.
  • Children between the ages of two and four years should get no more than 1 hour a day of screen time.
  • For children older than five, limit screen time to less than two hours a day.
  • Children and teens between the ages of five and 13 are allowed a maximum of 2 hours of entertainment-based screen time per day (watching TV, texting friends, or playing computer games).

Screen-free zone at homes

With the soaring portability of digital devices, it is necessary to create screen-free zones- designation of a room for instance or more in the house that is free of TV and all types of electronic devices. You should ensure that there are no screens in bedrooms or at the dinner table. Similarly, screen-free times can be set at suitable hours, such as during meals or before going to bed.  

Children get a better night’s sleep if they stop using screens at least 60-90 minutes before bedtime. This can be encouraged by relaxing activities such as reading, doing puzzles, or taking a bath.

Digital screen time has become an essential and inseparable part of children’s life, especially as they get older. And if children need to stay at home for a longer period of time, it is necessary to use digital means to learn and do their homework or stay in touch with family and friends. However, it is important to take frequent breaks from screen time. Children should not sit for too long in front of digital screens. Also,  it is important to maintain or set limits on browsing or video game playing time.

Screen time management strategies

According to the Australian Raising Children Network report, some routines and rules can be followed to reduce the excessive use of digital devices among children. For example, parents can limit screen time, such as limiting the number of hours a child can spend watching TV per day.

Parents should help their children set screen time limits by gradually changing their routines. First, children’s screen time should be decreased in small steps until it reaches the recommended limits for the child’s age group. For instance, if your child spends 2 hours of screen time per day, you have to decrease it by 15 minutes a day for a week, in slow progress towards meeting the recommended times for their age.   

Parents should talk to their children about technology and its positives and negatives and create a supportive environment to minimize screen time. If screen time is a big part of a child’s routine, parents should start by establishing rules that focus on incremental changes. 

There are some strategies for managing screen time and screen use. For children aged 3-11 years, screen time management strategies might include several key points: family rules, routines, transitions, and choices.

It is important to include all family members when setting rules about screen use. Your rules should be flexible enough to cover school days, weekends, and other holidays. The rules also need to take into account changing needs and interests as your child grows.

If a child breaks one of the agreed rules, they are prevented from using the tablet for one day.

Routines also help children know what to do, when, and how often. This means routines can help limit screen time.

Parents can make the transition from screen time to other activities easier by pointing out any good things their children can look forward to after their screen time is over. For example, “If you stop watching TV now, you will have time to play with your trains before dinner.” In addition, parents should praise their children for tackling screen time transitions and emphasize how good it is to work as a team. 

It is natural for children to feel disappointed about having to stop sitting in front of screens. In fact, it is a chance to talk about feelings and teach them how to express their emotions well with words honestly. However, if your children continue using their electronic devices or have a tantrum, you, as a parent, should not give them more time as a reward. You could be understanding but also clear and firm.  

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