Junior’s digital life begins at a very tender age — and so must parental guidance. Here’s what you need to know about screen time for kids.

With technology so intricately woven into our daily lives today, it’s no surprise that our young ones have become experts at all things screen related.

In fact, a local study by KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH) found that Singaporean kids love their screen time a little too much. The poll was done amongst 100 parents of children aged five to 14 years old.

It was found that 20 per cent of children were looking at screens for more than four hours a day. 70% of parents expressed concern about their little one’s screen usage, while over 41% were unaware of the recommended hours.

So what exactly is the recommended screen time for children? According to World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour for little ones under 5. For those under 1, screen time isn’t recommended at all. 

However, it is also interesting to note that The American Academy of Pediatrics loosened its strict 15-year-old policy of discouraging screen time for kids younger than 2 years old and limiting it for older kids. This move is an indication that technology can play a positive role in a young one’s development. 

Before you hand the device over to your child, read on to make sure you’re doing everything you can to ensure their time spent with the screen is beneficial.

What constitutes as screen time?

Screen time refers to the amount of time spent using a device with a screen. These gadgets include smartphones, tablets, computers, television or video game consoles. 

Screen time isn’t just about staring at a screen. Concerns are largely around its sedentary nature, given that many of us are sitting or lying down during screen time. It arguably limits the opportunity to maintain a healthy lifestyle by getting active or spending time outdoors.

Types of screen time

Not all forms of screen time are the same. There’s interactive screen time, where children can be actively engaged with what is happening on screen. It may be something as simple as video-chatting, playing a game or web surfing. There’s also non-interactive screen time, which can be seen as passive screen time. Information is taken in from a screen through activities like watching television or videos on YouTube.

Educational screen time encompasses both interactive and non-interactive aspects. Arguably the most beneficial type of screen time, it involves the development of cognitive, language, social and physical skills. For instance, playing educational computer games where children can learn skills like coding, math and grammar or watching a TV programme on National Geographic about nature and animals. 

Recreational screen time also comprises interactive and non-interactive elements. They mainly revolve around entertainment and relaxation. The most common examples are watching cartoons on television or playing video games.

Benefits and risks of screen time

Like many other activities, screen time offers pros and cons for children. 

Benefits include: 

- Learning new skills through educational content.

- Bonding opportunities as you watch movies or TV programmes together and discuss them with your child.

- Teaching opportunities as you guide your child to make wise choices about games to play or what to watch.

- Improving social and communication skills through video-chatting with relatives and friends.

On the flipside, the risks are:

- Inactivity for long periods of screen time can lead to a sedentary lifestyle. It may result in health problems like obesity.

- Physical strain to one’s eyes and body, contributing to myopia which is prevalent in Singapore.

- Sleep issues, given that the blue light from screens interferes with the production of sleep hormone melatonin.

- Screen addiction, which adversely affects a child’s social and emotional development. Children need real-life and personal interaction in order to form healthy relationships.

- Negative media messages which may promote unhealthy behaviour such as violence or coarse language.

Screen time guidelines

Given its numerous benefits, screen time isn’t all bad. Rather than banning it, it’s really all about moderation. Here are some tips for managing screen time for your little ones.

SET LIMITS The use of technology, just like every other activity in life, should be done within reasonable limits. It’s tempting to want to turn on a Shaun the Sheep episode on YouTube and have your fussy little fella veg out for hours while you get some rest time. However, this might hinder his participation in other activities, such as some unstructured playtime outdoors, which helps boost creativity while sneaking in some exercise time. So, set a time frame — whether its 30 minutes or 60 minutes — and communicate this with your older child to avoid him throwing a tantrum later on. However, also be ready to be flexible if junior is engaged in high-quality content and is on the verge of learning a new skill. Don’t cut him off midway while his creative juices are flowing.

QUALITY CONTROL What your young ’un is watching is much more important than how long he’s watching it for. It doesn’t matter if you set a 30-minute screen-time limit if junior is watching or playing age-inappropriate videos or games. There are heaps of websites and apps that claim to be educational. Do a background check on them before you allow your child to view them.

STAY INVOLVED Have only one common iPad, laptop or computer and insist that it should be used in the family room so that you can keep an eye on what your child is doing. Punch up the fun factor and play a video game with your kiddo to understand his online behaviour and perspective better. And do note that for infants and toddlers, co-viewing is essential.

BE A GOOD ROLE MODEL Stop burying your face in your iPhone all the time and your brood will follow suit. Create tech-free zones — no screens during meals so you can fully focus on your little ones.

REPRIMAND WITH EMPATHY Kids will be kids and sometimes their curiosity might get the better of them. If you find out that your child has been visiting inappropriate sites, don’t be harsh or shame him. Instead, make it a teachable moment and educate him with kindness on what he’s doing wrong and why he shouldn’t be doing that.

Photos: INGimages and iStock

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