IN THE MEDIA: Too much Screen time for Nursery Age Children?

14 August 2018

A perennial hot topic for parents, debates around screen time often relate to older children, but what about children under 5? Kelli Allen, Head of Nursery and Preschool at the Aga Khan Early Learning Centre shares her thoughts on the impacts of digital consumption today.

So while parents of children under five might breathe a sigh of relief that the challenges of teen online life are some years away, the impact of excessive screen time on young children can be equally damaging - although subtle, incremental and often less obvious. 

How can parents identify these problems, and can your child’s preschool setting help you tackle them?  We talked to a number of Early Years professionals in the UAE to see what their concerns were and asked for their 'top tips' to create good screen habits in young children.

We have all seen tiny children able to operate smart phones and tablets (often more skillfully than their parents!), something that was unthinkable even just 7 or 8 years ago.  And who imagined that children this young would be able to not only operate such devices but download games and apps and select their own viewing content? 

We are in the midst of a 'digital revolution' happening faster than anyone could have ever predicted and while data on the impact of screen time exists, the digital landscape often evolves too quickly for scientific research to keep up. 

Parents must think of their child’s activities online and on screen as another element of childhood that requires their active engagement and constant attention. You wouldn’t let your young child out to play alone, so why let them explore the digital world without your guidance and supervision?  

The importance of young children having time for free play, to imagine, daydream and to build creative thinking skills cannot be over emphasised. Some parents might see screen time as a useful tool for relaxation and downtime (their own and their child’s!), however recent media reports suggest that the senior leadership of many tech firms allow their children only very minimal screen time for just this reason. 

The addictive nature and constant stimulation of today's on screen media is hugely different from the limited cartoons and TV shows that the parents of today will remember from their own childhoods. 

This is a topic that is very concerning to Lisa Sherrington-Boyd of Kanagroo Kids Nursery.  Lisa has been working with children and families for 27 years, and feels passionate about the issues this generation face with regard to screen time and addiction to technology.  Lisa mentioned a recent and not untypical experience: "I met a mother in the supermarket who told me her child wasn’t talking and she was worried. I looked down and saw that her child had been given not only one tablet for the shopping trip, but a choice of two showing a variety of shows and games.

This was a missed learning  opportunity to discuss the things on offer in the store to help language develop, but more importantly was a missed opportunity for the child to connect with the world around them. In short, I feel screens could leave children potentially disconnected with society and lacking the language and social skills needed to develop into well rounded adults'.

Tech addiction has become a very real phenomenon, and we advise parents to be aware of signs such as:

  • Increasing and persistent use of the device, leading to social withdrawal
  • Frequent requests to use the device, resulting in temper tantrums when the request is denied or the device is taken away
  • Disengagement from activities, such as insistence on going home to use the device and refusing to perform other usual daily routines (such as going to bed) to continue playing with the device
  • Excessive preoccupation with certain characters found in games or videos, or spending a large period of time and resources on them (source)

We asked Kelli Allen, Head of Nursery and Preschool at the Aga Khan Early Learning Centre for her thoughts on the impacts of digital consumption today.  Kelli told us:

“As a long time Educator and Nursery Manager, I have been truly alarmed about the delays I am seeing in young children recently.  In questioning parents, I am hearing that children are spending excessive time in front of the TV and iPad at a very young age.  As I observe the new children enrolling in the Nursery I am seeing delays in physical, social and language development as well as difficulty in problem solving and focusing.  At Aga Khan Early Learning Centre (AKELC) we understand how crucial it is for young children to learn through all 5 senses and be fully engaged in active hands-on learning experiences.  For young children, this is a crucial time for brain development and as educators and as parents we need to provide the optimal conditions for growth”.

What can be done to prevent these problems?  Is this a failure of parenting or the fault of technology?   Do we need to eliminate screen time altogether?  Is there are middle way? Our Early Years team recommend parents build a ‘digital strategy’ into their family rulebook, one based around 'The 4 ‘M’s Strategy' – minimise, mitigate, mindful usage and (role) modelling. 

Minimise

Many of us will remember the days where we had to wait patiently for children’s TV shows to start after school!  Now our children have 24/7 access to a vast range of stimulating games and shows.

It is all too easy to allow a few well-intentioned minutes of downtime to spiral into far too long as we use a quiet moment to catch up with chores or sleep.  We recommend setting limits for daily use, writing them down and displaying in a prominent place and using a physical timer – an old school egg timer is great (kids find the visual passing of time far easier to understand). 

When it comes to devices, many will now have either a setting or a downloadable app which will close the device when a certain number of minutes per day has elapsed.   For this strategy to work, it must be non-negotiable and impermeable to wobbly bottom lips and tantrums!

Mitigate

So your child wants to use the iPad, but can he or she use it to extend their learning?  There are plenty of educational apps around, though we still recommend that parents consider age appropriate choices. Ask your child’s preschool or nursery teacher for ideas – could they recommend an app that coincides with how they teach phonics, shapes or numbers? If your child is learning about the ocean at nursery, can you allow them time to watch related content from the National Geographic website or similar? Remember – even educational apps and content are designed to hold your child’s attention for the longest time possible.

Mindfulness

A buzz word in almost every aspect of life, if we are to be mindful of our children’s technology use, we must think about how, when, where and why? Consider that it will be better for siblings to play a collaborative, multi-player computer game then to play separately on multiple devices. Think about if your child has access to screens immediately on waking or before bed. Ask yourself why your child is involved in a solitary experience, during what was prior perhaps a social experience. 

Modelling

So you have laid some ground rules for your children, limited screen time and are monitoring digital content like a hawk.  But do these rules also apply to you too?  Do your children see you as good digital role models? Just as in every other aspect of child behaviour, there is no one better for children to learn from than parents and significant adults.  Children are our greatest mimics, and will always be. 

Screens are a ubiquitous part of modern life, and have the potential to bring great positives into our lives. Teaching our children to consider screens as a tool and not as a treat is key to a happy, lifelong relationship with technology.

By Jenny Mollon

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