Should we listen to the experts’ recommendations regarding limiting daily screen time usage? What harm could screen time really do to our children’s brains?
I recently went on a search for some of the answers to these questions and was a little alarmed at the results. Research shows that screen time is linked to a range of less positive child outcomes such as obesity, poorer sleep quality, lower academic achievement, and poorer mental health. In particular, there is a consistent link between screen time and difficulties with attention and hyperactivity/impulsivity – the difficulties that characterise ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
ADHD is a disorder that typically appears in childhood. It involves difficulties with attention, vigilance, memory, planning, organising, impulse control, switching between tasks, and complex problem-solving. What we now know is that these functions undergo significant development in childhood and could be interrupted by excessive screen time.
There are a number of studies where researchers looked at screen time, and then came back and looked at attention at a later time (sometimes a few years down the track). These studies have consistently found a link between lots of screen time now, and attentional issues later. In one study, above average screen time at ages 1 and 3 predicted attention problems at age 7! Similar patterns have emerged for adolescents.
The relationship goes both ways — excessive screen time increases the chances of attention problems, and, attention problems make it hard for kids to limit their own screen time. ADHD has been found to predict more internet addictive behaviour and higher rates of TV viewing.
How does screen time impact attention and vice-versa?
Experts think it could relate to a few things:
- The ‘Excitement hypothesis’ suggests that the high paced and often stimulating nature of digital media (e.g. frequent cuts and edits, sound effects, flickering lights) provide a high baseline of arousal, and act as continual support for attention. Kids then get used to scanning and shifting their attention and then struggle to maintain focus on activities that are less exciting or stimulating (e.g. school work).
- The ‘displacement hypothesis’ proposes that digital media results in increased ADHD symptoms by taking the child away from activities that would support the development of attention, focus and impulse control. Some examples of activities that would better support the development of these qualities include reading a book, doing school work, inside play board games(such as , building blocks, puzzles, colouring/drawing), and sports or exercise.
- Lastly, the ‘attraction hypothesis’ suggests that kids who already suffer a deficit in attention and impulse control may find digital media difficult to resist.
So, what’s the solution?
We don’t need to ban screen time altogether…there isn’t anything out there saying that a little bit of screen time is going to cause damage. But, we can take steps to try and limit it and ensure it is used in a positive way. Here are some recommendations:
- Try and limit screen time usage – consider the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations for screen time usage split by age categories
- Designate areas of the home that are ‘screen free’ – for example, no devices in kids’ bedrooms is a consistent recommendation from the experts. This includes game consoles, phones, and computers/laptops.
- Select ‘screen free’ times of the day – one hour before bedtime is an important one as screen time close to bedtime has a big impact on sleep quality. You could also choose family meal times and when doing homework
- Consider device curfews – could all handheld devices be kept somewhere central for charging overnight?
- Consider the type of screen time that is being engaged in – try and opt for age appropriate and educative.
- Look for opportunities for co-viewing or co-playing (parent-child) and engage in/discuss what your kids are watching or playing with them.
- Consider your own screen time use and the example this may set – research has shown a link between parent digital media use and children’s screen time habits (a bit scary I know!)
The AAP have created a ‘Family Media Plan’ website with interactive tools which allows families to build their own ‘family media plan’ and work out time spent on digital media using a ‘screen time calculator’.