‘Screen time’ is something that everyone seems to be talking about. Does it help or hinder childhood development? What are the best methods to keep our children safe? Everyone seems to have an opinion. Here are some of the facts.

The statistics

Well over 80% of children in Australia have a smartphone or tablet. Our latest statistics are from 2015, and most estimates point to the figures being at least 90% now.

 

It’s worthwhile noting that a lot of online interactions happen outside of the family home:

 

But what does this actually mean for your children? In summary: most children have access to the internet via smartphones, tablets, and computers; and a lot of that access is outside of your control.

Positive effects

Access to internet-based communities can actually have positive effects for children, especially those who don’t fit in well at school and in other in-person activities. Because the internet offers access to a huge number of people, many children who have difficulty making friends in person find that a wider selection of potential friends provides more meaningful connections. This can improve self-esteem and self-image.

Some research suggests that targeted apps can help autistic children to engage in positive social interactions with their peers, get involved in physical play, and talk more.

Educational apps abound. Some are useful; some not so much. Apps can help children learn musical instruments, improve maths skills, and identify letters and words. Keep in mind that the educational effects tend to rely heavily on parental assistance and interaction; they’re most effective when an adult is helping or co-playing.

Negative effects

It’s easy to provide mobile device access as a way to keep children busy and quiet, especially on car trips and shopping outings. In and of itself, this isn’t bad; but it can lead to children not learning to entertain and calm themselves without the presence of technology.

Children aren’t adults, and the world of child-to-child interactions can be brutal to fragile self-esteem and ego. Cyber-bullying has been in the news a lot recently because it takes those negative interactions out of obvious social spaces into private ones, where parents and teachers won’t necessarily see it happening. This limits the opportunities for adults to intercede and stop bullying behaviours before they escalate.

Access to constant status updates, messages, and app notifications can easily lead to a ‘must check updates’ mentality that can fragment a child’s concentration and make learning difficult.

Research shows that a lot of children will happily play and chat on devices into the early hours of the morning. This can take a huge toll on their capacity to learn and interact effectively at school, because they aren’t getting enough rest.

How you can change your children’s outcomes

Childhood development still relies heavily on family and interpersonal interactions. One of the most effective tools in ensuring that children are safe and not over-using mobile devices is simply talking to them. Involve your child in the decision-making process when it comes to limiting screen time and ensuring that you can oversee what they’re doing online. This helps them to feel empowered in their technology use and builds a sense of trust between parent and child, making it more likely that if they run into problems – online bullying, interactions with a predator – they’ll feel comfortable confiding in you.

To foster good sleep habits, encourage the development of a device curfew (including measures to help your child avoid being tempted, like keeping devices in a separate room overnight). Install or use the native blue-light filter on the mobile device. There are some indications that decreasing the amount of blue light that a person is exposed to after sunset can improve sleep habits.

Talk to children about what they can do to cope when they don’t have their devices to entertain themselves. For some, suddenly losing access to rostered screen time – for example, during a blackout or a mobile service loss – can cause serious distress. Encouraging children to think about these possibilities and plan ahead for them can minimise distress if the situation occurs, but also keep children aware of the negative sides of dependence.

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