April 22, 2016
Most children love technology: from the TV remote to all sorts of gadgets and devices. As a result, TVs, and increasingly other devices, such as iPads and Smartphones, are commonly used as a form of digital childcare—allowing parents and childcare workers get on with other jobs. But, is this a positive application of technology that benefits both children and parents alike? Or, alternatively, are children being disadvantaged due to our increasingly hectic lifestyles? A recent study in the United States explored these questions and discovered that parent’s attitudes towards digital devices are often contrary to government recommendations. But, what are the alternatives?
In the United States, the Department of Health recommends that digital screen time for young children should be heavily restricted, according to their age. Indeed, all children under the age of two are recommended to avoid TV and other digital screen entertainment altogether. In France, they’ve gone one step further, banning all terrestrial TV programmes for children under the age of three; whereas, in Taiwan, parents face fines of up £1,000 for overexposing their children to digital tech—which they are legally obliged to monitor until their children are 18 years old! In the UK, we currently have no government guidelines regarding the exposure of children to digital technology.
The impact of digital screen time on child development been the subject of considerable research and debate over recent years. Some authorities regard screens as an important educational tool that can aid learning—even among young children. Whereas others argue that digital screen exposure, particularly at an early age, can hinder mental development. Currently there appears to be no scientific consensus on the subject. However, nobody would dispute the fact that reciprocal, face-to-face interactions, between adults and children, are essential for early childhood development. Therefore, digital technology cannot provide a complete substitute for good childcare—at least for the moment!
In the United States, parental attitudes towards digital screen time are generally positive. In a recent study, most parents regarded digital media technologies as vital to their children’s development. As a result, the application of digital screen time was considerably greater than government recommendations. The US study also revealed that 90% of parents regularly resorted to screen technology as a form of digital childcare. Stay-at-home parents were just as likely to turn to digital childcare as those in full- or part-time employment. Thus, digital childcare is not simply a product of the modern, hectic world. Instead, many parents are offering screen time to children by choice, rather than through necessity. However, the benefits to children of digital childcare are still open to debate, pending further research.
Until there is further evidence to the contrary, it’s probably prudent for all parents, nannies and other childcare workers to avoid becoming over reliant on digital childcare, particularly for pre-school children. Indeed, children under two years should probably avoid it altogether. It’s also extremely important to ensure that all screen entertainment for children is age-appropriate and to monitor their response during and after exposure. If the behavioural response is negative, then screen entertainment probably isn’t appropriate for that particular child.
Children will always find a way of amusing themselves, no matter how bored they might appear to be—and no matter how much they complain! Indeed, boredom can often stimulate creativity and will allow children to be much more self sufficient. But, self sufficiency is something best encouraged at an early age: as you don’t miss what you’ve never had!
Alternatives to screen time are many and varied and can include all manner of arts and crafts, games and toys, imaginative play, as well as physical activities and sports. In contrast to screen time, all of these activities are universally regarded as positive for children’s mental and as well as physical development and well-being.
Rob Hodgkison, Harmony at Home Limited. All Rights Reserved, 2016
Vittrup, B., Snider, S., Rose, K.K. and J Rippy. 2016. Parental perceptions of the role of media and technology in their young children’s lives. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 14: 43-54.