What you need to know:
Children that spend a lot of time before screens develop poor self-image and body image issues, have challenges fitting in with people as they pick up unfamiliar lifestyles they watch.
Ever paused to dissect the sway of digitalisation on children or explicitly, the digital gadgets? Let us zero down to screen time for children.
These devices include, but are not limited to, televisions, desktop monitors, laptops, tablet and smartphones.
The director, Hive Colab, Ms Barbra Birungi Mutabazi, a mother of four children between the ages of four and 12, expresses concern over how much time children spend on screens lately.
“These devices are fast becoming co-nannies,” Ms Birungi accentuates adding that toddlers especially, in well-to-do homes are exposed to long hours of screen time in the guise of distracting and keeping them busy to enable their caretakers do other chores.
“The parents download lullabies and games among other children’s’ content onto their gadgets which are then given to the toddlers at every whim. Minimal attention is put on how much time is spent on the gadgets, much less on their effects,” Ms Birungi says.
On the other hand, for school going children, online studying as an upshot of the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in ownership of or less controlled access to the devices. Then schools were reopened.
As was the case for most parents, Ms Birungi’s new dilemma was the choice between retrieving the phones, and looking for ways to redefine phone usage for the young ones.
“Being a technologist, I appreciate the need to integrate our children to the digitisation agenda of the country and the world at large,” she says.
Ms Birungi states that what the children watch on the screens can entertain and keep them occupied.
More so, some shows teach them about different people, cultures, and places, granting a child a wider perspective of the world they live in. Additionally, most of the content is designed to expose children to other parts of the world, and things they might not otherwise come across.
Nonetheless, while technology advancements mean the screens produced are less harmful to the eyes, at worst case scenario, they can still cause effects such as dry eyes.
On the other hand, too much exposure to screens reduces babies’ ability to read human emotion and control their frustration.
“It also detracts them from activities that help boost their brain power, such as play and interacting with other children,” Ms Birungi says.
Mr Solomon King Benge, founder Fundi Bots, an experienced tutor of children in robotics, says children mostly learn social behaviours by interaction.
“Children need to go out and touch the grass, as I like to say. Let them explore experiences with other human beings,” Mr Benge says adding that as they grow older, too much screen time may lead to sleep problems, under performance, less time for reading books and less time with family and friends.
More often than not, children that spend a lot of time before screens develop poor self-image and body image issues, have challenges fitting in with people as they tend to pick up the unfamiliar lifestyles they watch.
Mr Benge recollects an incident that was reported in The Guardian about a year ago, where kindergarten children’s parents in America expressed great concern over what they termed as ‘PeppaEffect’.
“American children were picking up on the Peppa Pig show accent resulting from the much time spent watching it,” he says.
The phenomenon was so widespread that its hashtag, #PeppaEffect trended a while. The question parents must ask themselves is, “What more are the children picking up on?”
“This is why parents must be heavily invested in their children’s learning at an early age,” he says.
It emerged that both Mr Benge and Ms Birungi consider the most fundamental remedy to be that adults manage personal screen time, especially around children.
An article in 2019 on scite.ai by Brandon T. McDaniel, reviewing merging research, found that parent phone distraction can negatively impact a child’s communication development.
The article further reads: “This is concerning as the evidence suggests links with parenting and child outcomes—such as lower awareness and sensitivity, fewer verbal and nonverbal interactions, less coordinated parenting and co-parenting, dissatisfaction with time spent together, and negative child reactions such as problem behaviours”.
Babies are born with billions of neurons in their brain. As they begin to have positive interactions with their caregivers–such as being held when they cry, or making eye contact, their neurons begin to make connections that help support speech and language development. That process is affected if a parent is less responsive to their child.
“Resisting that automatic urge to check the phone the moment the phone lights up, can be difficult but must be done,” Ms Birungi notes.
According Dr Richard Idro, consultant paediatrician and paediatric neurologist at Mulago Hospital, there are no specific guidelines to screen time for children in Uganda yet.
“However, there is a lot of research globally that gives a screen time plan we can follow”, he says.
For instance, children from zero to 18 months should be limited to video chatting along with an adult to say, a relative living away. Those between 18 and 24 months should be limited to watching educational programming with a caregiver for a specified amount of time not more than 30 minutes per day.
Dr Idro notes that, for children between two and five, limit non-educational screen time to about one hour per weekday and three hours on the weekend days.
“Encourage healthy habits and limit screens activities to two to three hours for children six years and above,” he says.
Furthermore, turn off all screens during family time and ensure screens are off and out of bedrooms 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. Parents must avoid using screens as pacifiers, babysitters, or to stop tantrums.
Actualisation of the screen time plan may not be easy as in the case of Ms Birungi, who started with a self-monitoring approach for her older children and it failed miserably.
“I discovered Google’s family link App which can restrict and monitor screen time, allow a parent to specify when the allocated time can be utilised. For instance, not before 10am and not beyond 6pm. Here, I add all my children’s phones and control them remotely wherever I am,” she says.
Ms Birungi limited the content according to age. For example, an eight year old cannot download a game for 13 and above.
However, this can never substitute a parent’s direct involvement since children could easily figure out ways to bypass all restrictions.
However, this when done in secrecy, could easily cause mistrust between a parent and the children. Therefore, be open to them about what you are doing with the phones and why you are doing it.