Children and Screen Time – Why We Need to be Ever Diligent

I was concerned recently to hear a keynote speaker at an early childhood and primary educators conference refer to the current concern about children’s “screen time” as being a bit of ”an over reaction”. The speaker attempted to compare the issue of our concern about excessive screen time to past concerns about being a left-hander (where normal practice was to tie children’s left hand behind their back!). The speaker then suggested that children who were visual learners needed to have screen time. These comments are not supported by data nor are the claims and links made supported by past or current research on children’s brain development.

Lets clarity the actual facts about how children learn – the early childhood years are a critical time for the brain to develop neurons, make connections and map pathways. We know that children in the early childhood years need to be engaged in hands on practical experiences, that they need to play, explore, investigate, experience, problem solve, think laterally, be creative – to contextualize their learning in the real environment in a way that is relevant and meaningful. We know that visual learners do not need screens to help them learn – in fact there are data to suggest that the opposite to be true.

There are many facts that we already have through reliable studies about the influences and effects of excessive screen time in the early childhood and upper primary years? Children are coming to school across the country with poor oral language. Oral language underpins all aspects of learning. Excessive screen time has been related to a delay in, or a compromise in the development of communication skills and social development (in particular empathy) in children in upper primary and the early childhood years. Children are spending less time playing outside, in some countries such as Canada and Australia perhaps up to 90% of their playtime is now spent indoors in front of some sort of screen rather than outdoors. Children rarely have to entertain themselves. That the excessive screen time is a major contributor to children’s high levels of inactivity and combined with poor nutrition is a major contributor to childhood obesity and early onset of risk factors and presence of preventable disease.

So where does this leave parents and educators about screen time? Electronic is part of life in the 21st century – however being part of our life does not then translate to dominating our life. Being part of our life is when there is well-defined, balanced and appropriate exposure of a child’s use of electronic. Electronic domination of our life is when children spend the majority of their free time being entertained by electronic and where children are unable to self-initiate and engage in activities that are non-electronic. Electronic domination of our life is also when parents continually use it as a baby sitter and as a behaviour control mechanism. Electronic domination is when the premise of education is based on electronic learning. Research clearly demonstrates that children need regular and consistent time to explore, to create, to imagine and to interact with the outside world (to look, to be and interact with the world). Research also shows the importance of learning through the modeling of adults whether that be the teacher having a conversation about learning, or being with parents out in cafes or waiting for siblings to finish swimming lessons; they learn to wait, to be patient, to observe the world, to make sense of the world, to communicate. They develop their oral language skills (that underpins all their learning) through conversations with adults. Excessive and dominating electronic mediums not only limits children’s opportunities to develop these skills but it also influences the mapping of neural networking during a crucial time of brain development. The excessive use of electronic often sneaks upon us without notice –more electronic perpetuates more electronic and visa versa, more free play promotes more free play. The perpetuating cycle of more electronic is often hard for parents to break and often involves considerable strength and hardship (in the beginning) for the parents as their children make the transition away from electronic. The time to break the cycle is sooner not later: the patterns, expectations and behaviors’ we set up for our children during the childhood years form the platform that they work from as adolescents. Right now is a great time for parents to start encouraging, facilitating and insisting on non electronic play now so that during the holidays your children will enjoy spending time exploring their world outdoors, being creative, using their physical energy, learning to initiate their own ideas and moving away from electronic domination.

Getting the balance is the key. The ensuing holidays is also very timely for all educators to assess their use of screen time in the classroom and to go back and review their pedagogical philosophy. To self reflect and ask the question is their pedagogy being driven by a philosophy or rather a screen!

Shona Bass