Five tips for getting kids unhooked from screens

Experts recommend limiting the time children spend using electronic devices
Jelleke Vanooteghem /Unsplash

Jelleke Vanooteghem /Unsplash

The endless lockdown months were the "perfect storm" for children to get hooked on screens. While many families had to work from home, their children were glued to mobile phones, tablets and TV screens. These tools were also their main educational resource, connecting them to online classes so they could keep learning. And at the end of the school day, leisure activities (individual or as a family) took place on the same devices. "Did we overuse screens? Yes, but I don't think anyone is to blame. We all did the best we could. All we can do now is use hindsight and try to learn from this period," said Manuel Armayones, professor at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences and researcher at the eHealth Center

Although it may have got worse in recent months, screen abuse is not new. "This is abuse, not an addiction. It becomes a problem when it affects other areas of our personal lives," Armayones explained. In the case of children, too much exposure to these technologies can lead to them being excessively moody, irritable and isolated. In the long-term, sedentary activity can affect sleep and cause children to be overweight or obeseSome studies, published in scientific journals such as The Lancet, also suggest that excessive screen use by children can delay cognitive development. It is therefore vital to break the habit of dependence on technology, i.e. introduce "digital downtime".

Experts recommend limiting screen time according to the age of the child. As a general rule, children under two should not routinely be using screens. Between 3 and 6 years old, no more than 30 minutes a day. Between 6 and 12 years old, no more than one hour daily. Between 13 and 16, no more than two hours. It is estimated that, prior to the lockdown, Spanish children spent around three hours a day in front of some kind of screen. However, during the lockdown their television viewing increased by 70%, while the use of mobile phones, tablets and video game consoles increased by 80%, according to the latest Newsletter on the Media Sector in Catalonia (BIAC) published by Kantar Media.

Armayones, an expert on the impact of these new technologies and author of the book El efecto smartphone: conectarse con sentido, has five tips to keep children away from their screens.

1. Set clear rules

The first step for regulating children's use of screens is to set clear rules. "We must have an honest conversation with them so they understand why they can't be glued to the screen all day and why they must follow some rules," explained Armayones. We must also tell them what they can (and can't) do with their mobiles, how much time they can spend, and when they must put them down.

"We all know that it is the amount of a poison you take that makes it poisonous. The same applies to new technologies," the expert said. He went on: "Whether this is more or less depends on the effect it has on our personal lives. In the case of children, we must be watchful in case the use of these devices changes their behaviour, or if the activities they use them for, such as playing video games, are addictive in some way."

2. Don't be afraid to negotiate

Apart from general recommendations, Armayones noted that there are "no golden rules for mobile use" and that "as each child is different, different agreements can be reached". It is, therefore, important to negotiate screen time: "If a child behaves well and performs well at school, sometimes we can let them have a bit more time with their phones. In other cases, when we see that the use of these devices is causing a problem, it is important to limit their use." It is also, therefore, necessary to make it clear that the agreed screen time can vary according to circumstances. In the run up to exams, for example, there will be times when it will be necessary to reduce the use of devices.

"We must approach this conversation as parents, not as friends or colleagues. Sometimes, whether we like it or not, we have to set rules," he said. Parents must always have the last word.

3. Give children something else to do

Restrictions on mobile phone use can be made more bearable if children have something else to do. Outdoor activities, for example, are vital for children's development, and they don't need any kind of technology. "Children never ask for the phone at the beach or in a water park, because they are having fun and are distracted. They do ask for it, for example, when we sit down to eat and they are bored by the adults' conversation. This should make us think," he said.

Alternatives to the mobile include all types of recreational activities, from playing outside to doing sport, painting, crafts, reading a story or spending time with family. As Armayones put it: "This is what we have always done. There is no great secret."

4. Don't preach, set an example

Telling children how to use their mobiles is pointless if they see their parents doing the exact opposite. So rather than preaching, it is better to set an example. "We teach our children more when we are not trying to teach them than when we are," Armayones said. "If we want to teach our children to not be dependent on a screen, it is vital to demonstrate this by our own actions," he said, pointing out that "excessive screen use can be harmful, and then some, for adults, too". It is estimated that adults look at their phones every ten minutes, and under-25s, every seven minutes.

5. Safe use, with no passwords

Children's use of mobiles must always be supervised, so they must never have passwords on their devices. And they shouldn't use them behind closed doors. "Children's safety is more important than their privacy. It is essential, therefore, to be aware of how they use their mobiles and what they do with them," he noted. He also recommends, therefore, the use of parental control apps on these devices.

And one more tip: a little understanding in times of COVID outbreaks

Uncertainty about how the COVID-19 pandemic will develop naturally raises fears of new lockdowns. "We mustn't blame parents or children. Both had a hard time and both did the best they could," the researcher said. Right now, we must take advantage of the lull to put down the phone and spend more family time away from the screen. Now is the time to "recharge our batteries" in preparation for an uncertain future. And when, or if, another lockdown happens, we will have to adapt once again to the circumstances, using common sense and understanding.

Experts UOC

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