“Children are using social media and the internet like sweets or junk food”, declared Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield in a statement recently.
Media consumption and exposure to too much screen time are issues we’ve been thinking about a lot recently at My Baba and with this in mind, we asked Director of Tomorrow’s Child and Child Development Expert Dr Jacqueline Harding for advice on all issues concerning children and their media consumption.
Do you agree with the children’s commissioner and her comparison of social media being the equivalent to junk food?
Actually, I’m really delighted that the Children’s Commissioner has developed a strategy that is practical, down to earth and helpful. The 5-a-day analogy is one of the best ways I’ve come across in terms of communicating the need for ‘balance’ in terms of media consumption. It’s not about ruling out the digital world (that would be unhelpful and unrealistic) but learning to work with every child to help them find ‘balance’! Undoubtedly, some social media experiences could be considered ‘junk’ but in my opinion the whole picture is not that simple.
I’ve researched this area for over twenty years and, for me, there are two key words that sum up what children need regarding media consumption: empowerment and balance.
Empowerment: children need to begin to learn how to control their own digital consumption – stopping and starting at will – rather than as dictated.. Helping children learn to exercise self-control is essential and there are practical ways to do that.
Balance: All children need to lead a balanced life – one that involves a range of activities that include, for example, daily vigorous physical activity and face-to-face interaction with others.
How much is too much when it comes to how much time our children are spending on electronic devices?
I don’t think it’s helpful to set rigid limits, instead it’s much more useful to consider: OK, how can we use online resources in a way that is meaningful, useful and relates to the every day. Children need to feel in control of their digital lives (right from an early age) rather than ‘it’ being in control of them! Helping them to learn to start and stop at will is the way forward.
Generally speaking however, excessive time spent on screen consumption inevitably leads to less time to do other things in life. Answering the following questions might help: does my child lead a balanced life? For example, do they spend equal amounts of time doing exercise; engaging in face-to-face contact with others? Or, are they becoming increasingly isolated?
Here’s a couple of simple questions to begin to gauge if children are spending too much time on screen devices:
- How does the child appear after the experience? Are they animated? Bright eyed – curious and wanting to talk about the experience or explore it is another ways (away from the screen?). If so, all well and good – the screen is offering something positive for them.
- Or, are they fractious, tired, and unresponsive to the stimuli (post viewing) and not wanting to engage in anything else? If so, absolutely… they are spending too much time on screen devices.
What are the social impacts of too much screen-time? Could you tell us about any studies undertaken to prove that media consumption is either a positive or negative aspect on children’s lives?
Attempting to prove or disprove that screen time has a positive or negative impact on children is a challenging area for all researchers, as so many factors need to be taken into account. For example, at the outset we have to know what we are defining as screen time – what kind of screen are we talking about? TV screen? A tablet? A smartphone? Then of course, it’s also about the value of the content viewed and how that screen content might be used. So, how is the screen time being extended into other areas of their lives –are they using the information for homework? And, perhaps, just as importantly, is the screen content age-appropriate? There are just so many factors that need to be considered before attempting to answer the question.
From a more positive viewpoint, Professor Marsh’s work at the University of Sheffield in 2005, demonstrated how television, video and other elements of the media and popular culture can have a positive impact on the lives of young children from birth to six years old and how these devices can be used to promote early learning in children.
A more negative view is discussed by Professor Dimitri Christakis, a director at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. He states that we all know there’s such a thing as problematic internet use in older children and adolescents and that it is likely to happen with infants. He identifies how overstimulation could lead to problems in later life, particularly with focus, memory and impulsivity. However, his experiments have attracted criticism for a number of reasons.
In summary, the answer to this complex question is continuing to be researched all over the world and, as of yet, the full answer evades academics.
There are a lot of negative aspects to digital content and what our children can gain access to. Is there room for positive media, and if so what does this look like?
For me, building positive media content and identifying it for parents is the way forward. Here are a few helpful ways parents can start to identify the positive ‘impact’ on children:
|Content should be all of the following:
|Empowering – enables the child to feel confident and as independent as possible in their developing abilities within a safe digital environment
|Engaging – causes the child to be motivated and inspired
|Stimulating – encourages the child to feel curious to learn more
|Safe – provides the child with the space to explore the digital experience at no risk|
How can we counteract issues that surround kids, such as overindulging in screen time and discovering potentially damaging content?
I think we can begin to tackle this challenge in three ways:
- There is an urgent need for more positive content that is developmentally appropriate, stimulating and exciting so that, hopefully, children of all ages naturally gravitate towards quality content.
- We need more robust ways of communicating with parents to support them in their attempts to identify what constitutes positive media.
- Children are biologically wired to connect socially so offering them ways to spend time with parents and others (preferably out and about) is going to be a good way to manage any excessive screen time!
TalkTalk’s new Kids TV remote is a great example of an innovative tool that helps children to control their own screen time. The Kids TV remote from TalkTalk is specifically designed for little hands and gives them instant access to a Kids Zone where they can choose to watch a selection of shows pre-chosen by their parents. Not only does this safe viewing zone empower children to begin to make their own decisions regarding their screen time, it also has features that allow parents to set boundaries for length of screen-time. The on–screen animations give children advance warning that it’s nearly bedtime. By placing the remote in their hands TalkTalk’s Kids TV remote begins to teach children about the boundaries of screen time.
Article written by Dr Jacqueline Harding is the Director of Tomorrow’s Child and Child Development Expert.
Feature Image Credit: All Round Fun