Since I came to the United States in 2003, I have been surprised by the fact that placing children in front of the TV was not the norm for most families I came to work with. Totally the opposite of what happens in Brazil, where our nannies were Xuxa, Angelica, or maybe Mara Maravilha, on television. But it made sense, I totally supported it, and I can say, I myself went through a “screen detox” and lived without a TV for over a decade!
Currently, the problem is not just television. It’s the smartphones, tablets, video games… the most preferred nannies and sitters in many households are known as Fortnite, Minecraft, TikTok, Instagram, Youtube, and a multitude of other shows and games that many parents and caregivers still have no idea of their existence.
You certainly know a young child who spends a lot of time using a smartphone or computer screen as a toy or distraction. This is a way that many parents use to keep them quiet, and this has been intensified, even more, during this pandemic. I understand that many parents need to work from home and with the children home from school, receiving virtual instruction also adds to the ongoing list of tasks, in addition to the double work of having to manage everything and everyone at home, and get used to this new lifestyle. However, we must be conscious and aware of the consequences of creating these new habits, mindful about transferring education, playing, and the time that we should dedicate to our little ones to the screens.
What health organizations say
According to the WHO (World Health Organization), children under the age of one should not use screens or electronics for recreational use. They also recommend that children should not be exposed to screens passively. The Brazilian Society of Pediatrics, as well as in the United States (AAP) and Canada (CPS), recommend that this restriction be up to the first two years of age. In the case of children from 2 to 5 years old, it is allowed to use up to 1 hour a day and, over 5 years old, a maximum of 2 hours. This time allowance, however, should not be used in one sitting; it should be distributed throughout the day and at the very least, incorporate breaks every 20 minutes, so that the little ones can move around and do other activities that require physical effort.
I still remember when my little brother – now 30 years old, lol – seemed to be hypnotized in front of the TV. He didn’t blink and I remember being quite scared watching him! The result: he was not even 4 years of age when he developed strabismus. I started wearing glasses myself at the age of six. Upon a quick research, I found out that children’s myopia has been steadily increasing cases around the world, mainly due to the increase of screentime with young children.
The use of a screen also prevents the child from being active, playing while moving, causing a sedentary lifestyle and resulting in an increase in childhood obesity. It also affects other areas of health such as the neurological part, which is essential for healthy development.
At birth, we already have billions of neurons, but they are not yet connected to each other. This connection occurs in the first years in a very intense way, it is what we call synapse. And it is precisely these that give us the ability to develop our cognition and motor skills, which are fundamental for child development.
One of the determining factors for your little one to create synapses with the correct frequency is the affective bonds and the stimuli created when interacting with people. To actively interact, actively engage. Therefore, allowing and exposing children under two years of age to screentime can also cause developmental delays. Not to mention that it can still facilitate the development of psychiatric illnesses, poor school performance, difficulties in language development, and other problems with your child’s psychological and physical health.
Another important point is to understand the origin of this child’s habit, which often comes from the role models at home – siblings, parents, and caregivers. For lack of knowledge of the great harm it causes to young children, many parents are not opposed to their children being exposed to these technologies. Although we have these electronics for entertainment and even work, we cannot let these habits affect our children’s development and upbringing. It is worth mentioning that the child learns by imitating and recreating what people who live with them do. It is very common to see adults on the cell phone instead of being present with their children, actually playing and interacting with the child.
The use is increasingly precocious
Studies on the subject state that children’s precocious access to technology has been increasing, to keep them distracted so the grownups around them are free to do their work and household tasks. This behavior is called passive distraction, the term is used because it is precisely the opposite of playing in an active and interactive way, exploring and communicating with the world around them – an essential activity for the child’s development. The child needs real stimuli in the first thousand days of life so that their brain can strengthen those connections and mature in a healthy way.
Another area that is affected by the use of electronics is the quality of sleep, which, especially in the early years, determines a lot about the development and quality of life of your little one in the future. And exposure to blue light, used in these devices can lead to loss of sleep and deregulate everyone’s routine. Therefore, using electronics close to bedtime and during the night can do even more harm.
Education tips in the digital era
In order to preserve the health of the little ones in several aspects and define the maximum time for using electronics, the Brazilian Society of Pediatrics has created a manual for parents to learn the best way to deal with the digital world, family life, and early childhood education. These tips are aligned with several institutions around the world, including the AAP. Here are a few of them:
- Don’t let children and teenagers isolate themselves in rooms when watching TV, using a computer, tablet, and smartphone. Monitor and control the use in places of common access in the house;
- Regardless of age, we should not use screens during meals or an hour or two before bed;
- Whenever the child wants to play with an electronic device, give them other non-electronic options to play with, for example, build a fort, dance party, go outdoors have contact with nature;
- Create rules and schedules for the use of these electronic devices that generates disconnection and distance from family life;
- Use passwords so you can restrict your little one from accessing adult content.
- And most importantly, in my opinion, watch first! Be familiar with the shows and programs your children are watching/playing with. Create a list of approved shows and games that have been safely vetted by you, to ensure they are appropriate for your children.