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How to manage kids' exposure to screens to facilitate their development

Nowadays, screens are everywhere: at home, there are more screens than family members per household! They are integrated to carseats, you can see advertising videos at the bus stop or at your train station, in some restaurants and supermarkets, you can order and pay without talking to a single human being, TV is alway turned on in waiting rooms and screens are increasingly settling in in toys magazines and strollers. They are now even fixed to potties! Every healthcare practitioners agree on the fact that an improper use of screens has a real impact on the physical, psychological and affective development of children. The goal here is not to demonize screens, but to discuss how to better use them to encourage our children's development.

Effects of an improper use of screens on children's development

Children are sensory human beings, they discover the world surrounding them with their whole body: they observe, touch, smell, taste, experiment temperature changes, fatigue, hunger... By playing, they build their muscles and develop gross and fine motor skills, they understand the 3 dimensional space, they establish causal links, they interact with their environment and communicate with their relatives.

Some aspects of their development will be affected if they are too often in front of a screen. While children are watching TV, they are not playing, nor using their body. They are passive in front of a succession of images, sounds, colors witch are drawing all their attention. The intensity of those images and sounds is way higher than the usual stimuli of their everyday environment. If they are too much exposed to this intensity, children will get used to it and will increasingly need agitation and restlessness. They will lose patience more easily and will not be able to play alone.

Furthermore, unlike what most people think, TV or educational apps do not help babies and kids to learn how to speak faster. As a matter of fact, communication is closely linked to the emotional state and it is by talking with their relatives who adapt to their sounds, movements and facial expressions that children will develop their language. Screens reduce the occasions for children to have social relationships with their relatives and decrease communication with their family members.

Finally, the blue light produced by the screen has a real impact on the production of the sleep hormone called melatonin. American researchers have indeed proved this light had the same impact on the brain than daylight. When your child watches a cartoon or plays on the tablet before going to bed, the blue light sends the message that it is still daytime so your child's brain stops the melatonin production. Sleep quality as well as time to fall asleep are affected. A child who does not sleep well is more stressed, irritable and is likely to get sick more often.

Practical advices for a better screen management

A lot of psychologists and child psychiatrists have been working on the use of screens in our society and acknowledge new technologies are an integral part of our modern life. As a result, we should not try to eliminate them, but try to integrate them wisely in our day to day life.

Serge Tisseron, a French psychiatrist, created a prevention campaign called "3-6-9-12, Apprivoiser les Ecrans et Grandir" ("3-6-9-12, Better Manage Screens and Grow-Up"). The principles are:

  • No screen before 3 years old:

Before 3, children mostly need to play, experiment, move, and connect with their relatives. This is how they build their spatial and temporal points of reference witch are critical for their development.

  • No personal video games before 6 years old:

Children continue to explore their fine and gross motor skills They learn how to write, they like artistic and sensorial activities. Video games, even for the appropriate age, have a particular addictive nature because they are offering some sort of reward to the child: every time he or she touches the screen or the controller, something happens, the response is immediate. If you want to introduce video games, be sure to respect the indicated age and choose multi-player games rather than solo games. It provides you with an opportunity to share a moment with your child and emotionally support him/her.

  • No internet alone before 9 years old:

Children are learning how to interact with others in an appropriate way, they are creating meaningful relationships. It is really important to explain to them the 3 principles of Internet (and keep on reminding them!):

1) Everything we do and publish online can go in the public domain;

2) Everything we do and publish online will stay forever;

3) Do not believe everything you read/see/hear online.

  • No social networks before 12 years old:

Remind your child about the privacy and image rights. Talk to him/her about illegal downloads, scams, pornography, harassment, etc.

  • After 12 years old:

Your child is independent on the internet, but don't forget to remind him/her about the risks stated above. Be curious about what he/she is doing online, establish a clear "internet access" schedule and turn off wifi at night.

It is important to choose the right time to watch a cartoon, play video games or on a smartphone. Below are French psychologist Sabine Duflo's reference points to help you chose the perfect moment to offer your child a screen time. They are called "4 periods of time without screens = 4 steps to better move forward".

  • No screen in the morning before going to school, because they over-stimulate and capture the child's attention, so it will be hard for him/her to be focused in class.

  • No screen in the bedroom because they affect sleep quality and prevent parents to have control over the amount of time spent and the content being consumed.

  • No screen during mealtime. Meals are interactive times to share in family. They provide a valuable opportunity to talk, ask about everyone's day and give a place to each member of the family. Furthermore, some images are not appropriate for children (TV news for instance).

  • No screen before bedtime because they block the production of sleep's hormone and over stimulate the child.

French child psychiatrist Stéphane Clerget suggests an easy tip to decide how much screen time is adapted to your child (all screens included): no more than one hour per week per year of age. For instance: a maximum of 3 hours of screen time per week at 3 years old, 8 hours at 8 years old, etc.

Generally speaking, between 3 and 9 years old, always be with your children when they are in front of a screen, just to control what they are doing and help them understand what is going on. It is important to talk with them about what they have seen and understood, help them put words on their emotions, support them when they are frustrated etc. Screens should not be digital baby-sitters. The presence of an adult is indispensable to support and help the child. Be aware not to leave the TV on in the living room all the time. It is a source of distraction for your children. Even if they do not seem to be looking at it, they can not be 100% focused on what they are doing.

Lastly, here are a few tips to end the war when you turn off the TV or when you take away the iPad:

  • Set up a timer with your child when he/she starts a video game or a movie, and when the timer rings, it is over, even if the game or the movie is not. The greatest benefit of the timer is that your child can actually see how much time he/she has left.

  • Warn your child frequently: "you have 10 min left", "5 min". It will help your child to be ready to end his/her activity.

  • Tip from a mom: create cinema tickets with the help of your child ! Choose their duration as well as the number of tickets they have per week: for instance, create 4 tickets of 20 minutes per week. Once your child has spent all the tickets, he/she will have to wait for the following week. They will learn to manage their own time!

To conclude

Screens are not fundamentally bad, but the way we use them has an influence on the development of our children. It just takes some time to build the right habits: less time spent in front of a screen = more time to play, communicate and grow! Tablets and other screens offer a lot of entertaining and educational programs. Select and use them wisely in order for them to have a positive impact. Always respect age limitations and try not to use screens as a reward. Finally, do not forget children learn by seeing. As a result, it is critical we limit our own use of screens when we're around them.

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