This article was written in June 2020 as part of a portfolio of work for my MA course at the University of Lincoln. It has been published on acajournalist.com in January 2021 to allow time for it to be graded first.
By columnist Ailsa Adams, mother to two boys with a baby girl on the way.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced some parents, like myself, to engage in more screen time with their children. This can be to communicate with family, do schoolwork or even attend virtual baby and child groups. I asked some experts what damage this can cause to childhood development and how parents can help.
The old saying “Don’t stand so close to the TV or you will get square eyes,” thankfully isn’t true, though it didn’t stop our mothers saying it in the eighties and nineties. Now screens come in the form of televisions, laptops, desktop computers, tablets and mobile devices and children can become a little obsessed.
Last week Jeremy Hunt MP even tweeted a letter his four year old daughter had typed, with the help of her brother, assuring him she had been good, loved him very much and asked if she could have some screen time as a reward. A scene familiar in my own house where my two children would happily sit all day on screens if they were allowed to.
Optometrist Annica Clark, from Clark Family Eyecare in Donington, Lincolnshire, put my mind at ease a little for my own children’s increase in screen time since lockdown began in March: “There is no direct link between increased screen time and damage to children’s eyes, however it is worth considering the effect of blue light and decreased focal lengths.”
What is blue light and what can it mean for my child?
Blue light is present in everyday life and comes from sunlight and electronic devices such as mobile phones, tablets, laptops and televisions. It has been linked to problems with sleeping.
“Whilst it’s not ‘damaging’ to anyone’s eyes, per say, some opticians will argue that blue light for prolonged periods can cause eye strain and affect our circadian rhythm which is our bodies natural rhythm to fall asleep and wake up,” Annica adds.
Can screens lead to my child needing glasses?
“There is no direct link between screens and myopia (short-sightedness) in children though any increase in close work can potentially cause strain and lead to myopia. This is not just screens though it can be knitting or even reading a book as examples,” says Annica.
What can we as parents do to protect our children’s eyes?
If screen time for schoolwork and the occasional treat is necessary during lockdown, it might be worth investing in some blue lensed glasses to help reduce the levels of blue light the eyes are taking in.
It also is recommended you break the screen time up regularly throughout the day and encourage outdoor play. Annica expands on this further: “There is a suggestion that children who spend more time outdoors are at lower risk of developing myopia.”
Can screens alter development?
In a word, yes.
Early Years Teacher, Sue Strickson from Ayscoughfee Hall School in Spalding, explains: “The difference in the last fifteen years has been quite remarkable. Some children come to us and try and swipe up to turn book pages now, perhaps never really handling real books at home.
“We also have noticed that pencil grips are generally much weaker as children are spending more time on screens and less time putting pencil to paper.”
Nursery owner, Sheona Smith has also noticed a change in nursery aged children.
“Over the last 15 to 20 years, the advance in technology has been completely astounding but the decline in children’s communication and language development has been frightening. I believe the two are closely linked with many intertwining factors,” says Sheona.
The factors include screens replacing reading but also at times, screens replacing conversations with parents. Also, the change in pram fashion over the last few decades where most toddler push chairs face out rather than towards the parent. Many conversations are therefore lost or at least the face to face aspect is, so the child cannot watch you speak and move your lips.
“The decline in parents speaking to their children has meant that now some children are not speaking until they are nearly three or even later, their behaviours are also very affected by the lack of communication as they do not have the correct tools to deal with everyday situations, how can you sort a problem if you don’t have the language to communicate,” explains Sheona.
It is feared the issue may get worse after children have spent more time at home and on screens during the pandemic.
What can parents do to help?
Variety is key so break up screen time with reading books, letting the children handle the books and turn the pages. Make sure you always have pencils and paper readily available and encourage toddlers to start mark making on the page.
Pencils are preferable over felt-tip pens as they are harder to mark the page meaning the grip will get better. Use playdough or Lego building to add dexterity to fingers to help strengthen their fingers. A bonus is they also help their concentration!
Teacher, Sue Strickson, expands on this further: “Try not to worry about getting children writing their name before they start school, instead concentrate on mark making, drawing pictures and pencil grip. We sometimes find those that write their name have to start from scratch if the letter formation is different to how we teach it.”
What about brain development?
There are lots of studies currently looking into the impact screens have on brain development as the full picture is only just starting to be known with the technology improving so much in the last decade.
Researchers from the National Institutes of Health in America recently conducted a study on nine and ten-year-olds across 21 sites with eleven-thousand children. Preliminary results showed that children that spent two or more hours on screens a day, performed worse in tests on thinking and language against their peers who spent less time on screens. MRI scans were used to scan the brains which also showed differences.
As this is only one study, it cannot be concluded that screens definitely have a negative impact, but it is worth considering limiting time where possible, though this is hard during the pandemic with educational resources often online.
Why is screen time linked to obesity in children?
Dietitian Nicki Weaver explains: “Screen time increases sedentary behaviour which in turn can be an issue with the increasing levels of obesity in adults and children. One of the key things a parent can do is only do the bare minimum using technology.”
If you are continuing a level of home schooling across the summer holidays, it might be worth considering printing worksheets out to avoid using screens too much. To avoid the sedentary behaviour, having a timer go off at set intervals for some physical activity breaks might be fun and help children concentrate better for shorter periods of time.
Nicki also explains the problems with eating whilst watching screens: “Eating whilst watching television or using a computer, increases the chance of higher volumes of high fat and sugary snacks being eaten, which in turn leads to weight gain.
“Portion control is very difficult to manage when we eat like this. We call it mindless eating. To be mindful in our eating we need to be sitting still with no other distractions then we are able to process and feel satisfied as we remember eating and tasting the food.”
Coronavirus has been proven to impact obese people more severely so it is important to limit mindless eating in children to help prevent obesity.
What snacks should I feed my child?
Nicki suggests going for foods that are high in fibre and protein as they are filling.
“Go for a small handful of nuts, whole-wheat cereals, rice cakes, vegetables with hummus, natural yogurt with fruit or popcorn to help to fill children up. Just remember that portion sizes are key and make sure the child is sitting at the table with no screens or distractions,” says Nicki.
I have spoken to some of our readers to find out the best ways to manage screen time with children during lockdown.
Kim Nicholls, a mother to a six-year old boy and three-year old girl, has been home-schooling her children but managed to send both back to their educational settings in the last few weeks.
“It is really hard to juggle but generally we did worksheets that were printed out rather than schoolwork on the computer. I try to keep the computer for fun things they want to watch and play at short intervals across the day,” says Kim.
Will Telford, a father to a nine-year-old boy and seven-year-old girl said: “Neither child could return to school so I have been working full time and trying to teach them alongside my partner. We found to begin with they were constantly on screens for schoolwork and leisure. It got out of hand so we set up a system where they can have thirty minutes a day on non-educational videos and games but up to an hour or more if it is a school day, on educational games and videos.
“It has worked really well and balanced out the screen time across the day much better. With them being a little older too video games on consoles are also an issue. James would play Fortnite all day if we let him.”
The most important thing to remember though is we are in the middle of a pandemic. If screen time has increased but everyone in your household has remained well both mentally and physically, don’t give yourself a hard time, perhaps just add in more breaks and a better structure to the day if you are concerned.