How To Limit Your Kids’ Screen Time Without Provoking Massive Tantrums

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There’s no way to fight the advance of the digital age and no matter how frustrating it is that your four-year-old is already more tech-savvy than you will ever be, it’s important to let kids take advantage of the wonders that technology now offers.

However, too much of a good thing certainly applies to kids and technology, thanks to the negative effects on the development of social skills.

We spoke to Clare James, psychotherapist for Natural Nurture nursery, about the impact screen time can have on children and asked for her advice on the best ways to limit that screen time.

How much time should children spend in front of screens and what problems can develop when this is exceeded?

The American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest that the maximum a child should spend in front of any device is one to two hours per day. That would be the maximum.

We’re looking at child development in interacting with the “other”. So when the child is on the screen, the interaction is with swiping the screen. They don’t have the interaction of eye contact with the other, or the intonation of voices and matching facial cues with what’s being said. Children are now coming to pre-school and regular school and they can’t read the facial cues of the teacher or another pupil. They become quite self-absorbed and therefore they’re not able to relate to the other.

There’s also the notion that the child’s sense of curiosity is limited. They get the reward from the devices based on predictive algorithms which keeps the child almost in a trance-like state, because the dopamine reward mechanism is activated, but there’s no social engagement with the other. The child then doesn’t develop being in the world and seeing how things work.

When you’re outside building something, you’re observing things and trying to negotiate how to work with the other. You learn skills of team-building, sharing, understanding another’s perspective, initiative, how the world works and how your body works. That spatial awareness gets blunted when you’re in front of a screen for four or five hours a day, or even less.

Are all screens the same?

When the child is watching TV the child has a chance to talk to the other and glance away, but when you’re looking at a device there’s no distraction and no talking to the other. It’s drawing the child in and it seems like there’s a relationship, but there isn’t. It’s manipulation rather than a relationship.

Is it important for parents to monitor their own screen use around their children?

Yes, it limits interaction. If you go somewhere and look at people pushing prams or with their children, they’re always looking down. The parent is looking at their phone, the child is on a device, and there’s no visual interaction. It’s become a norm for the parent. They really aren’t aware of the consequences of their actions on their children.

What’s the best way to limit the time your kids spend on screens?

Instead of saying “you can only have an hour today”, say “you can have two half hour sessions, isn’t that great?” Come from a place of abundance rather than limitation.

Don’t ban it, because you can’t. Technology is important for these children, it’s part of life, but it’s not all of life. Sometimes children need some quiet time and sometimes a device can be quite soothing and calming. So you can’t knock it, but you can monitor it and say, “this is what we’re going to do now and that’s the timer. You have 20 minutes. And after 20 minutes we’re going to turn that off and do something else.” Then they learn to control their frustration levels.

When you take these devices away when they’ve had them for two or three hours, they have had this reward system with a predictive algorithm that gives the reward intermittently to keep the child engaged and involved. When you remove that suddenly or randomly, they want it back and get very frustrated.

The problem with this is that then you have dad or mum on the phone or devices. You have to be consistent. A child will say, “but you’re on yours!” If your children want to talk to you and you’re on the phone, don’t be surprised if they lose interest and don’t attend to what your rules and regulations are. If you’re not consistent, why should they be?

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