Ahead of Screen Free Week Dr Ellie Cannon shares her advice to help alleviate parents’ main concerns about the impact of excessive screen time.
Next week is Screen Free Week (2-8 May), an annual event that encourages children, families, schools and communities to pause screen-based entertainment and to enjoy activities such as outdoor play, exploring and reading instead. At Gymfinity Kids, we know just how important it is for children to enjoy an active lifestyle from an early age and the myriad benefits this provides for their physical and mental health, cognitive development and happiness.
Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic caused children to spend more time on screens than ever before and the introduction of online learning means children now use screens for educational as well as recreational purposes. Recent research published by media regulator Ofcom found that nearly all children (91%) went online in 2021 and the majority used a mobile phone (72%) or a tablet (69%) to do so. Ofcom’s research also found that although the majority (63%) of parents felt their child had a good balance between screen time and doing other things, 40% of parents said they struggled to control their child’s screentime.
Ahead of Screen Free Week Gymfinity Kids, the UK’s first and only provider of clubs and nurseries using movement, development and nourishment to enhance overall wellbeing in children, has collated parents’ main concerns about children spending too much time glued to a screen. And to help put parents at ease, Dr Ellie Cannon, practicing GP, expert on family health, and Gymfinity Kids Development Ambassador, shares her top tips to help families enjoy screen time in moderation.
Q: My child is having trouble sleeping. Could this be because they are having too much screen time?
Dr Ellie: As screen time is a stimulating activity, there is the possibility that it can affect children’s sleep. As a rule, it is best to allow children screentime earlier in the day and I recommend having a no-screen policy for children’s bedrooms, especially for those under the age of 10. For those children having difficulty sleeping, then I would suggest no screens in the 1-2 hours before bedtime.
However, it is important to remember that children’s sleep can be affected by lots of other things too, including anxiety, pains, itching and noise. If your child is struggling to sleep, then it is important to consider these factors as well.
Q: I am worried that my child spends too much time gaming indoors and is not getting enough Vitamin D. What can I do about this?
Dr Ellie: Gaming is fine for children in moderation and in some cases can be helpful for socialising. However, it is crucial to limit the amount of time children are allowed to spend gaming as it is a very sedentary activity and can be isolating.
I would advise offering your child an alternative but equally fun outdoor activity such as biking, climbing, trampolining or Scouts to encourage children to get moving and to be active outdoors. Alternatively, if your children can walk to school then this is a great way to get children to exercise without them complaining that their gaming time is being compromised.
Regardless of whether they enjoy gaming or not, I would recommend that all children take a Vitamin D supplement to support their growth and development.
Q: My child seems to prefer playing on an iPad than socialising with friends. Is this a bad thing?
Dr Ellie: Just like adults, not all children are natural extroverts and they do not all need to be social butterflies. However, it is important to offer children the opportunity to socialise because playing on an iPad is a sedentary and potentially isolating activity. Group activities are an easy way for children to socialise and be active simultaneously. Structured activities such as drama, Guides, Scouts or gymnastics and Ninja Knights classes like those offered at Gymfinity Kids are particularly good because they offer a seamless and enjoyable way for children to exercise and make friends.
It’s easy for the iPad to become an default activity for children to pass the time but it is crucial to also encourage children to play, explore and to be as active as possible. When children do spend time playing on an iPad, I recommend establishing time limits to make sure it is enjoyed in moderation.
Q: What impact could too much screen time have on my child’s vision?
Dr Ellie: Children’s screen time has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic after schools were forced to move learning online and children’s usual activities and sports clubs were forced to temporarily close.
Unfortunately there are some health impacts from this – as is the case with adults, excessive screen time can cause eye strain in children which might take the form of headaches, dry or sore eyes and light sensitivity. In the worst cases, too much screen time can cause or worsen myopia (short sightedness). In fact, children are more likely to be short sighted now than they were 50 years ago which may in part be due to the increased amount of time we spend on screens.
If you are concerned that your child may be suffering from myopia, then chat to a GP or optician.
Q: Should I be limiting my child’s screen time? If so, how do you recommend doing this?
Dr Ellie: This depends on whether your child’s use of screen time is impacting their wellbeing – in moderation some screen time is absolutely fine. I would consider screen time to be a real problem if it has started to affect your child’s participation in physical activity, socialising, family time, sleep or their physical health (e.g. their vision). If any of these essential parts of their wellbeing are being compromised by excessive screentime then it is time to set a strict limit.
The limit should be a clear boundary that everyone sticks to, and it is important to remember that parents set an example for children. Try and make meals screen free for all the family, including parents, and I also recommend no screen use for children during the 1-2 hours before bedtime.
Q: What activities can I suggest to my child to encourage them to spend less time on a screen?
A: When offering children alternative activities to screentime, try to ensure they are face to face, offline and active. Much of children’s enjoyment of being online is centred around the community feeling it offers, so it is important to offer that sense of community offline too. Groups that offer a sense of community include sports, drama and youth clubs – any activity that presents the opportunity to socialise with friends.
It is important not to offer activities that children will consider a lesser alternative to screens – make sure the alternative is equally fun and enjoyable. If you can, try to offer a choice of activities rather than an either-or between an activity and a screen. This will give children a sense of independence rather than causing them to feel as though they have been forced into an activity.
Q: My child has a tantrum every time I take away the iPad. How can I address this?
A: If your child exhibits this type of behaviour, it is important to set clear and consistent boundaries as soon as possible. Regular tantrums indicate that they could be displaying early signs of screen addiction. This might sound like an extreme term, but is something that can be easily remedied and is better to address sooner rather than later.
In terms of coping with your child’s tantrums, I recommend using lots of praise and try to suggest other activities to distract their attention from the iPad. If you have younger children, try using a sticker chart so they can visualise their progress and have the potential to receive a tangible reward.
Unfortunately, it is likely the tantrums will continue for a week or two, but if you and all the other caregivers in your child’s life are consistent with the boundaries you implement, then your child will soon learn and the tantrums should stop.