Once upon a time there was this particularly busy mom of a very active two year old who just couldn’t manage to complete the work she had to in a day. So she did what many of us do – plonked the child on the sofa and switched on the TV. The mother could finish all her chores in peace and still the child continued to watch. Then the mother thought she could use the extra time to take some well-deserved rest.
Sounds familiar? Here’s another scenario.
The child falls sick and has been cranky for a week. To keep her amused and to prevent another tantrum we let her watch something on TV. Amazing but that’s how many kids have their first taste of the electronic screen. And before we know it our children spend more time in front of the screen than we would like them to.
We might tell ourselves that it is okay, that it is not permanent and that my child is not going to experience any after effects of this. Anyway she does not show any of the much publicized behavioural changes. Let me ask you, have you noticed your child growing taller from day one to day thirty? The changes are imperceptible. But they do happen.
So what do we do? We take action. Here and now. Here are some of the strategies to use.
You – A Role Model
Let’s start with ourselves. Observe your own behavior. How much screen time outside of work do you average? Do you flop down in front of the TV and binge watch shows? Are you a distracted parent who is constantly checking the mobile phone and religiously keeps up to date on the social media platforms? Is there a TV in your bedroom? Do you obsessively play computer games?
If the answer to any of the above questions is yes then it is high time you changed your own screen time habits for the benefit of your child. Cut down on TV watching. Don’t keep checking your phone. Time was when such phones did not exist and life went on as usual. Use technology like you use fire. Use it to serve you. Don’t be enslaved by it. Use the time you save in this way to spend it with your family. Do fun things. Play a game. Go out for a walk. Invite the kids’ friends over for a small get together. Walk your dog. Fly a kite. Or simply sit around and talk or stare out the window at the falling rain.
Your children surely learn from the example you set them. Don’t have a TV in your bedroom. TVs and computers are best kept in areas accessible to all members of the family. Switch off all screens an hour or two before bedtime. Set this rule. Follow it and see that it is followed. There might be arguments and tantrums that leave you drained. Weather them. Think of the consequences of too much screen time on your child’s physical and mental health and soldier on telling yourself that the effort and the battles are worth it.
Set Time Limits
The next step is to limit the viewing time. Set a time across all devices. Ideally it should be just an hour. Once you have set a time limit see that it is followed. Instead of screen time devise other activities for your children. If they are old enough ask them what they would prefer to do instead of spending time in front of screens. Take their suggestions into consideration and create activities around their preferences.
Cutting down of screen time may take time to implement. But be consistent. In the beginning you can try things like switching to DVDs instead of TV programs. This helps you to have control over the content and limit the time too.
Audio Books and Regular Ones Too
Another effective thing to do is to listen to audio books. You can join an audio book library and borrow audio books for free. You can then slowly make the transition to print books and read with your child. (For tips to make your child get into reading please see my post – Realistic Tips for Rearing Readers)
Involve the Child in Chores
I know I said things like play a game, fly a kite in the earlier part of this post. But there may be practical and time constraints for these activities. You are a busy person with multiple responsibilities. Agreed. One way to get your child away from the screen is to involve her in your chores.
You can ask your child to help by assigning her age appropriate chores. This has many advantages apart from keeping your child away from the screen. It can help you spend quality time with her, it can teach your child essential skills, it can make the chores themselves less monotonous and boring for you.
No Screen Meals
Switch off the TV during mealtimes. Instead use this time to bond and have fun as a family. Ask about how each member’s day was and tell them about your day. Share anecdotes. Talk and listen. Communicate. Twenty years later your child will not remember what program she watched on TV. But she will definitely remember the happy times spent together as a family.
Some kids might complain that they feel left out during conversations at school when friends talk about the latest episodes of their favorite shows. Don’t worry. This is not going to cause them any lasting harm. Even the so called benefits of the ‘educational’ programs are overridden by the harmful consequences of too much screen time.
It’s a good idea to keep a viewing calendar and note down the time spent on different devices by all members of the family. This helps you to monitor viewing time and progress objectively. It also prevents unnecessary arguments and unpleasantness.
Grandparents’ TV Time
Now let me talk of an exclusively Indian phenomenon. Perhaps it will resonate with Eastern cultures where there are grandparents staying with the family. Many families in India are nuclear. But many families also have either the paternal or maternal grandparents staying with them.
Grandparents are in the habit of watching TV for long hours with the volume turned full on. One cannot blame them. It is the time of their lives when they deserve to rest and if this is their idea of spending their days one can do nothing about it. They have earned it.
But hang on. If their TV viewing is affecting your child or if your child is watching TV along with her grandparents or telling you that she can’t concentrate on her studies with all that noise, it’s high time you did something about it. If you have the space and resources, you can set up a separate TV in their bedroom and have them watch it there. If not you can suggest that they watch TV when your child is at school. Most of the soaps they watch have a rerun during the daytime.
Remember to be gentle but firm. But also remember that they have lived a major part of their lives and your child is only starting out on hers. I’m sure if you put it reasonably and from the point of view of your child’s well-being any grandparent will be more than willing to cooperate. You can also suggest alternative activities depending on their health and interests. Be positive and kind and you can surely devise a solution that is acceptable to all.
Harmful Effects of Too Much Screen Time
Lest we forget, let me remind you of the harmful effects of too much screen time. This is by no means an exhaustive list but a quick read will make you see the point. Too much screen time (more than one and a half hours a day) leads to:
- Obesity. They say sitting is the new smoking. It is important to move. Even those people who have to spend many hours in front of screens as part of their work are advised to get up and walk every two hours or do some stretch exercises to get that much needed movement.
- Increase in aggressive behaviour. The ‘sensory overload’ makes it difficult for the child to focus and also depletes his energy thus making him moody and aggressive. More screen time also reduces sleep and this may also result in aggressive behaviour.
- Low energy levels. Haven’t we experienced it ourselves? Don’t we feel dog tired and depleted of all energy after binge watching a favourite show? Physical activity increases energy levels.
- Poor academic performance. Loss of focus and the inability to concentrate on a given task leads to poor academic performance. Also, loss of sleep due to increased screen time can lead to issues with cognition.
- Anxiety, fearfulness, mood swings. Lack of sleep due to increased screen time causes anxiety and mood swings.
- Low coping skills. The digital world is often ruthless in its competitiveness and in its unabashed frankness about what it thinks of you. So unless the child has a good support system in the real world, coping becomes difficult.
- Poor social skills. A child who is permanently immersed in her screen does not form friendships in the real world and thus lacks basic social skills. It is while playing with friends out on the field that a child learns important social skills.
- ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder). Studies show that over two hours of screen time in kindergarteners makes them more likely to have ADHD.
- Mental health issues like depression and suicidal tendencies. When you are constantly comparing your dull life to what looks like fabulous and uber cool lives of others on social media you are likely to get depressed. And if you don’t have the real friends with whom you meet up and spend real time, coping becomes difficult.
A glance at the above list will convince you of the importance of limiting your child’s screen time. If you need further proof here’s the link to an article that appeared some time ago.
In this post I’ve just offered you a few suggestions for tackling this problem. You can doubtless devise your own ways or adapt the above suggestions to suit your particular situation.
The mantra is: Be consistent.
For more articles visit the Random Musings section of my blog. Or if you feel like a story go to Folk Tales and read amusing folk tales from Kerala. Or else have some fun adventures with the redoubtable Amy Aunty.