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Children and technology: considerations for raising children in the digital age

More than ever before, children of all ages have relied on technology for learning, play and socialization. Due to COVID-19, our entire lives seemed to be online! But now, life is slowly returning to what we used to know, and for many families school is back up and running. This makes it a great time for parents to reevaluate technology use in their home. 
Even before the pandemic, children were spending an increasing amount of time on electronics, from TV to video games to social media platforms. Nearly all children today live in a home with access to electronic devices! It’s not news that technology has completely transformed our lives, including how we entertain and educate our children — but exactly what is this doing? 

  1. A large percentage of children in Canada and USA are consuming far more media than pediatricians recommend;
  2. Technology is increasing learning difficulties, while decreasing mental and physical health; and
  3. Using technology for education is causing more and more kids to miss out on the benefits of direct and hands-on learning experiences. 

What are the recommendations?
Recommendations for appropriate screen time use from the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are:

  • Children under 2 years old: No screen time  
  • Children 2-5 years old: 1 hour or less per day
  • Children 6+: 2 hours or less per day

However, only around 53% of Canadian children aged 5-17  and 33% of American children aged 6-17 met these guidelines. 
What are the risks?
However, screen time has several consequences that parents should be made aware of. 
There are serious psychosocial risks to too much screen time. Technology use can take away from spending time with family and friends. Reduced social interaction can result in declining social skills and increasing anti-social behaviours in children. This will affect their well-being at school and in other social environments. 
Sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy weight gain is another major concern. The CPS and AAP recommend that children 5-17 years old get at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day. Shockingly, only 5% of children are meeting this guideline! In addition to the physical health risks, a lack of physical activity can negatively affect children’s mental well-being, stress levels and cognitive functioning.
Disrupted sleep duration and quality. Recent surveys found that 47% of Canadian children and 60% of American adolescents report using an electronic device within one hour before bedtime. Screen time before bed can increase sleep latency by suppressing melatonin release and disrupting sleep rhythms. 
Poor school readiness. Too much screen time can prevent children from learning the skills and knowledge necessary for school success. Technology use in early childhood has been linked to adverse outcomes like printing and reading delays, learning difficulties, shorter attention spans, and decline in critical thinking skills
Now, hold on — this is not meant to work parents into a frenzy! When the type and amount of technology use is monitored, it can be a wonderful educational tool for children. However, it is an important reminder for families that technology should not be the only educational tool used at home. 
How to manage screen time

  • Set limits. Manage the where and when of screen time. This could mean discouraging technology use at the dinner table, during family time, and before bed. Different routines will work for different families! Parents can start by considering the recommendations outlined above. 
  • Be a good role model. Parents should manage their own screen time as well. When parents use technology regularly, their children are more likely to as well! Face-to-face interactions with parents are so important to children’s learning and development. 
  • Prioritize healthy alternatives. Healthy screen time can also be modelled by encouraging other activities over using electronic devices. This could be physical play (bonus if it’s outdoors!), reading, and arts and crafts — all of these activities promote motor, social and cognitive development!
  • Encourage meaningful screen use. Be sure that children are using age-appropriate, interactive and educational programs and apps. Parents can provide children with more social learning opportunities while using screens by co-viewing (Learn more about co-viewing here.). Parents can also encourage learning at home through media. This could be as easy as asking them follow-up questions after watching a movie to get them thinking! We want technology to be as beneficial as possible to their growing minds

Replace technology with hands-on learning
The main take-away here is that screen time is never a substitute for direct learning experiences. Excessive electronic use often means children are missing out on a pivotal component of learning: doing! Hands-on learning benefits development and learning in a way that just cannot be replicated by electronics. Some benefits of hands-on learning include:

  1. Enhances creativity, curiosity and divergent thinking;
  2. Encourages independent discovery and accomplishment;
  3. Enriches cognitive development; and

Gets children off the screens and excited about learning!

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