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Managing your child's screen time

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Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

It can be a parent's best friend. That reliable fall back to quell boredom or buy us some well-earned (and sometimes much needed) peace and quiet.

Screens, devices, apps, games and videos – oh how we love them!

But at the same time many of us harbour doubts. They are fun, our children adore them, but are we doing damage to our kids?

Insert the rolled eyes emoji and lament the fact there is another thing to add to that very long list of things that make us feel guilty as parents.

But we all want to do more good than harm, and like anything, a little bit can be quite okay!

That's Linda Sandes' take on it, anyway.

A speech pathologist working in regional Australia since the late 80s, Linda has seen an incredible change in the way children interact with technology and, moreover, how parents are giving over to devices and screen time to spare our sanity and the children's boredom.

"It is a whole different world," she says.

"The advent of computers and other devices has certainly allowed for a whole new level of support for children with some special or additional needs and there are some fantastic tools out there for children with difficulties in speech and writing.

"We are better off in that there is greater awareness around the different possible needs of children as they develop and grow.

"There is no disputing the benefits of that and it opens up many opportunities.

"But there are also some pitfalls and risks if we don't manage technology and our use of it – or our children's use of it – carefully."

Hindrance in the development of fine and gross motor skills, a reduced interest in reading and not seeing it as ‘fun’ and even the nurturing of an addictive nature in some children can be pitfalls of too much screen time.

Then there are issues around social interaction, speech development and communication skills as well as a reliance upon devices to immediately – and quite effectively – alleviate any boredom.

There is no point telling children they should reduce their screen and device time if Mum comes to the table and checks the phone or constantly has her phone with her.
Linda Sandes

The Department of Health recommends no screen time from birth to two years and less than one hour a day for children aged two to five years. 

Like everything in a child's development – and in life in general – it all comes down to balance, Linda maintains.

And, she absolutely gets that every family situation – and the demands that come with it – is different.

"We all have our pressures and stresses and there are a lot of demands on families.

"But with not a great deal of effort there can be some petty significant rewards."

And it's okay for kids to be bored, she says.

"Young children need to be moving, they need to be active and engaged in physical activities as well as being emotionally secure by consistency in the people they have around them.

"Movement, discovery and play is all important for a child's overall development."

"But then there is reading. We see kids who are really good readers, but they don't see reading as being something they do for fun – and that is really sad.

"That, for me, is the crux of it.

"Children can sit for hours with a device and the time slips away and even their mood is altered.

"Think about your child – or any child who has been on a device for a period of time and then think about the mood they're on when they hop off it – it's not usually good."

Rules, controls and boundaries

Rules, controls and boundaries, Linda says, are key to managing a good balance between healthy familiarity and too much device time.

And, parents need to walk the talk.

"There is no point telling children they should reduce their screen and device time if Mum comes to the table and checks the phone or constantly has her phone with her."

Linda maintains screen-free time, limited time allocations for device use, and getting back to basics are key to controlling device use – and ensuring a well-rounded approach to development.

She says sitting at the dinner table and holding open and engaging conversations every night, being strategic with questions in the car during the school run, encouraging reading books and just using good language with a solid vocabulary in everyday conversation are all ways parents can counter – and complement – a child's screen use.

"There is nothing wrong with a DVD or iPad or whatever as a child minder for a little while, but know what the child is watching, keep an eye on their use and interaction and stick to your rules and limits,” Linda says.

"It's easy – and understandable – that parents might use devices and screens as a go-to; and it is really easy to slip back into old habits because it's all much easier than fighting a toddler (or teen) to get off their device.

"But the rewards speak for themselves and in the long run your child will benefit."