This review article by Dr Cheryl Ngo was first published on 21 May 2020 in Mount Elizabeth Hospitals’s Health Plus.
Now that families are confined to their homes, parents are grappling with just how much screen time to allow the children. Here are ways to minimise the risks and make the most out of screen time during COVID-19.
As families adapt to the new normal of learning, working and playing from home, it’s natural that the amount of screen time for children has increased.
This might worry some parents – after all, we’ve been warned about the negative effects of too much screen time on our children. However, it’s important to remember that the ‘extra’ screen time is serving a purpose during this time: they allow us to carry on with our work, education and social lives from the safety of our homes.
Instead of worrying about the inevitable increase in your child’s screen use, experts suggest focusing on making the most out of it.
Here’s what you should know about screen time risks, and how you can aim for healthy screen time during this “circuit breaker” period.
Studies have shown that excessive screen time can lead to obesity problems, poor quality sleep, eye strain, as well as educational and behavioural problems.
It’s important to note that most of these health effects regarding excessive screen time is connected to a reduction in other activities, such as active play and socialising, which are vital for your child’s learning and development.
Most of these risks can be minimised by ensuring that your child balances time on screens with other physical activities, and monitoring the quality of the content your child is exposed to.
The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) has previously suggested these screen time limits:
Rather than worry about the length of time your child is spending on the screens, you can focus instead on keeping screen use positive and helpful.
The effects of screens on children depends less on time and more on the type of content they engage with when using a screen.
High-quality screen content can benefit your child greatly, allowing your child to learn new skills and exercise creative problem-solving.
According to experts at the National Institute of Early Childhood Development in Singapore, when looking for high-quality screen content, ask yourself these questions:
If your child spends time alone with a device for hours on end, that’s unlikely to be healthy. Engaging with your child and finding ways for your child to engage socially is important in practising healthy screen use.
For example, when your child is using a screen, get involved and talk to your child about what’s going on in the programme they are watching. If a new concept is introduced, take the opportunity to explain it to your child.
You could also set up a time to engage with a screen activity together with your child – such as playing an online game with them, or watching a movie or theatre play together. Encourage your child to explore or continue socialising with their friends virtually too, such as a video call with family or friends, or participating in a virtual study session.
Balance screen time with offline activities that help your child play, relax and communicate. Indoor physical exercises, helping with household chores as well as simple baking/cooking, doing a craft project, playing board games, audio books or free play are all helpful alternatives to screen time for children.
You can also encourage your child to practise skills they picked up online, such as dancing, drawing, or craft work from an instructional online video. Parents should be consistent and set limits to screen time for children.
Continue instilling healthy eye care habits in your children, such as taking regular breaks and maintaining adequate face-to-screen distance when using digital devices.
There is increasing evidence to suggest that the intensity of near work, that is, sustained reading at closer distance with fewer breaks, may be more important than the total hours of near work contributing to myopia progression.
As a guide, remember the 20-20-20 rule: Take a break every 20 minutes by looking at an object 20 feet (or 6m) away for 20 seconds. Looking into the distance allows your eyes to relax.
Ensure 60cm of distance between the face and computer screens and 30cm of distance when using phones or tablets.
Try to avoid screen time 1 to 2 hours before bedtime, as too much blue light exposure from screens can make it harder for us to fall asleep.
As we adapt to working and learning from home, limiting screen time can feel like a futile endeavour. Aim for healthy screen time instead. If you have any concerns about your child’s behaviour or learning, you can see your paediatrician for advice.