Absorbed by Light

Three figures sit next to each other on a bench, displaying the typical characteristics of smartphone users: their heads are bent, fingers typing and swiping, and their faces lit up by their phone screens. While their bodies are physically present, their minds are elsewhere. This sculpture, which appeared at the Festival of Light in Amsterdam in 2018, was entitled 'Absorbed by Light'. It is somewhat haunting in its presentation and symbolic of the world in which we now live.

Parenting has never been easy but the widespread adoption of smartphones and the rise of social media has introduced a new dimension to the challenges of parenthood. One of the most highly discussed and debated topics among parents today is screen time. How much is too much? And what impact will screens have on children’s development? Amid these growing questions, the World Health Organization issued guidelines recently on the amount of time young children should spend in front of screens.

It suggests that YouTube has emerged as a key platform for both younger and older children. 89% of parents of a child age 5 to 11 said their child watches videos on YouTube, as do 81% of those who have a child age 3 to 4 and 57% of those who have child age 2 or younger. While the majority of parents whose child uses YouTube credit the platform for entertaining and educating their children, a large number of these parents are concerned about their child being exposed to inappropriate content on the video sharing site.

However the conversation around screen time is not limited to children. Parents themselves grapple with their own device distractions. When asked if they spend too much, too little or not enough time on their phone, more than half of parents overall (56%) said they spend too much time on their smartphone, while about seven-in-ten (68%) said they were at least sometimes distracted by their phone when spending time with their children.

It is easily done. Sometimes in the evening I look up from my laptop screen in the living room to find the rest of the family with their eyes fixed on their phone screens and the television blaring out the next episode of The Repair Shop (which incidentally I actually like to watch if I have the time). We live in a digital media world and it troubles me sometimes that our children are not having a range of stimuli similar to those I had in the good old days!

Screen use and digital media use can refer to a number of different mediums such as smartphones, tablets, television, computers and game consoles. Digital media is embedded in our 21st Century society and with recent technological advancements, the number of opportunities to be exposed to digital media has increased. Even six years ago, the Ofcom report “Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report” (2016) suggested that screen use amongst 5-15 year olds had increased to 15 hours per day and that 99% of 6-36 month old children were using digital media daily. In contrast the Department for Education recognises that digital literacy is a highly important skill for children growing up in our digital society.

Many threats from excessive exposure to digital media have been proposed including disrupted cognitive and social development, obesity, sleep disruptions, impaired wellbeing and problematic media use. From my own experience I know that too much screen time can lead to a change in behaviour from children. Not only that, if children are spending too much time looking at a screen they are missing out on really valuable opportunities to develop their communication skills, their logic and reasoning, their oral persuasion and a whole lot more.

Experts say that children should never have more than 1.5 hours of screen time per day on school days. Here are some top tips to make sure this is the limit:

  • Set a specific limit. Make a screen time limit that is less than 1.5 hours, and always stick to it. Children will start to use their imagination and come up with ideas about how to spend their time on their own once they are used to having a regular amount of free hours without screens.
  • Plan activities. During your children’s downtime, take some time to plan some activities. It is easy for your children (or you) to default to screen time when there are no other ideas about what to do. Schedule outdoor playtime and leave the screens at home, or schedule playdates with friends so your children will be occupied. 
  • Do the modelling yourself. Children are likely to model parents' behaviour. So, if you want to limit screen time for your children, make sure you limit your own. Try to spend time at home reading, doing puzzles, interacting with other family members, or doing other activities that do not involve electronics.
  • Focus on family meal times. Make family meals a time when screens are off and everyone is focused on eating and interacting with each other. Studies show that a large number of families eat dinner with the television on. Break the cycle and make meals a time that is always screen-free. I think meals without screens not only result in better relationships, but also in lower risk of obesity and healthier diet choices.

“Whether you are a parent or not, carving out time to turn off your devices, to disconnect from the wired world and engage with the real people who are all around you, is one of the best gifts you can give yourself and the people you love.” (Alan Brown, entrepreneur and coach)