Raising digitally healthy kids

As the 2020 school year is coming to a close, our children are looking forward to 1 and 3/4 months of holidays to occupy themselves. This summer, more than any other, is challenging.  Some of the summer camp programs and the overnight youth group movements have not yet returned to normal. Many of our older children are looking for part-time work, but yet again, so are the HSC grads who can’t take a gap year abroad at this time. How are they going to occupy themselves, especially over the hot summer months? 

Children today are growing up immersed in an absolute tsunami of screen exposure. They often learn to tap, swipe, pinch, minimise, play, pause etc. even before they learn to tie their shoelaces, to hold their pencil correctly or to ride a bike. 

Children as young as four months old are being exposed to screens. Raising children in a hyper-digital world can be somewhat overwhelming and confusing. Us as parents don’t have a frame of reference from our experiences, as we grew up with an ‘analogue childhood’. We glazed at the sky not at a screen.

To quote Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, ‘Screenagers are children who often spent more time with pixels than they do with other people’.  Digital childhood can impact on socialisation, behaviour, health, and physical development. Many parents, and professionals, are worried about some of the long-term impacts associated with a digital childhood.

The opportunity cost of screen time

Kids are spending an ever-increasing amount of time on digital devices. Reports suggest that young children are spending a significant amount of their waking hours each day, especially not school during school holidays, on screens. Studies have shown that 45% of eight-year-olds and 80% of children within the ages of 12-17, use screens for an excessive amount of time each day. It is important to note that not all screen time is negative, damaging, or unhealthy.  However, too much screen time can definitely adversely impact children’s basic development.

Screens aren’t necessarily unhelpful or unhealthy. Research confirms that if technology is used in an intentional and developmentally appropriate way, there are documented educational and social benefits for children. However, excessive amounts of screen time can derail children’s health, learning and development. To put it quite simply, screen time can displace some key developmental priorities.

According to Dr Kirsty Goodwin, in her book Raise Your Child in A Digital Age, she identifies seven unchanging developmental needs:

  1. Forming healthy relationships and attachments
  2. Hearing, developing, and using language
  3. Sleep and healthy sleep habits
  4. Engaging in play; creative, parallel, and co-operative
  5. Being physically active; ensuring your body stays healthy
  6. Developing ‘executive’ functioning skills – higher order thinking skills including impulse control, working memory and mental agility skills
  7. Consuming quality food, to ensure your body receives the appropriate nutrition.

Too much screen time, especially in the earlier years, can displace opportunities for these developmental needs to be met. The problem is amplified in children in the early years for multiple reasons. They have limited waking hours and in addition, 90% of a child’s neuropathways are formed in the first five years of life. In the early years, there is a significant amount of the brain architecture being built every day. Screen time can interfere with that development in young children. However, pre-teens and adolescents are not immune to the risks associated with excessive amounts of screen time, that’s for sure!

How much screen time is safe and healthy?

The number one parenting challenge that many parents face in western countries, and especially here in Australia, is ensuring their children engage in an appropriate, not an excessive amount of screen time. Unfortunately, with the explosion of screen time use in recent years, there is a dearth of longitudinal studies of the impact of the excessive use of screen time on children. However, here are a few general guidelines based on Australian research. These guidelines are also published in the Australian Government Department of Health Screen Time guidelines in Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines.

They are:

0-2-year olds – no screen time per day

2-5-year olds – a maximum of one hour per day

5-12-year olds – no more than two hours per day

13 – 17-year olds – should limit the use of electronic media for gaming or entertainment to no more than two hours a day and they should break up longer periods of sitting at a computer as often as possible.

What are they doing on their screens?

Content is king. It is not only about how much time children are spending on screens, it’s also about what are they doing on their screens. Kids can access inappropriate content which can cause short and longer term serious emotional problems, such as premature exposure or normalisation of pornography, or excessive violent gaming etc. 

We as parents need to consider if a child’s screen time is passive or active. Is it being used for leisure or learning? Are they creating and communicating on the screens, which is ideal as they are cognitively engaged and are assuming an active role? Or are they passively consuming content? We need to carefully regulate and monitor what children are doing online. It is a mammoth task because with a rapid evolution of different platforms, both for social media, gaming and entertainment, often our children’s knowledge and experience is vastly superior to our own. Here are a few tips and tricks for parents to help their children engage with appropriate online content.

  1. Clear, wide-open lines of communication – high trust.  Ensuring we discuss explicit and clear expectations and boundaries with our children about what is appropriate and what isn’t. Letting them know that if they ever engage in something that they know we wouldn’t approve of; we are more than happy to talk to them about it. We don’t want them to sweep their exposure and activities under the carpet or hide things from us as parents. If they have peers, or others in their world, who may be accessing content that is objectionable to our values, they need to be able to talk with you about it openly. Not necessarily because they want you to call their friends’ parents, but just because they need a little bit of social reinforcement not to succumb to the peer pressure of being exposed to that content.
  2. Keep up to date – as parents we need to try to engage in what our children are engaging with in their world. What are they watching? How are they communicating? What games are they accessing? A phenomenal website that I use quite often is Common-sense Media, the Australian E-Safety Commissioner is an informative resource as well. These provide you with insights into different gaming apps and entertainment opportunities and save you an enormous amount of time.
  3. Web filtering – Finally, using a filter and setting up parental controls, such as Family Zone, can be extremely beneficial.

Screens and sleep

An excessive amount of screen time can obviously displace opportunities for sleep. Many adolescents now report staying up much later, or actually being awake through the night because they are hyper-connected. Speak to your teenage children, find out if they are waking up earlier, going to bed later or checking their phone during the night, often unbeknownst to their parents. (An absolutely outstanding technique is to have a drawer away from the child’s bedroom, in which all devices sleep for the night.) Many adolescents are suffering from chronic sleep delays and sleep deficit because of their poor sleep habits. At the onset of puberty, young adolescent sleep habits begin to change due to changes in their production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates the waking and sleep cycle. In young teens, the production of melatonin is often delayed until between 9-10pm. In other words, they are biologically wired to stay up later, often resulting in them wanting to sleep in for hours. If teenage screen time isn’t carefully managed, it can hugely impact their sleep for longer periods of time, at a vital developmental time in their lives resulting in a series of physical, emotional, health and academic issues. Digital devices, particularly backlit ones like mobile phones and tablets, emit a blue light which can hamper the body’s production of melatonin (although some online studies appear to refute this conclusion). Insufficient melatonin can cause sleep delays and sleep deficit. The use of screens before bedtime can also have an arousing effect on the brain, particularly when action or rapid fire things are being viewed like games, cartoons or any show that can overstimulate the brain and cause sleep delay. The very presence of a digital device in a child’s bedroom can adversely impact on the quality of their sleep.

Tips and tricks for a healthy sleep for our digital children

  1. Set a digital bedtime – the time when all our devices go to sleep. It should be 60-90 minutes minimum prior to our children’s actual bedtime.
  2. Do a technology swap –  have you ever thought of purchasing the very inexpensive and truly excellent Kindle, or Kindle like devices, that don’t emit a blue light, and have no distractions and are not capable of surfing the web and are really just there to read a book.
  3. Be mindful of the content – consumed or created on devices just prior to sleep. Having a deep social media interaction with friends just prior to sleep or watching action packed, scary or heart pumping content prior to bed, makes it more difficult to fall asleep. Avoid scary. Nothing scary should be viewed by children prior to bed, especially children who are approximately 7-10 years old.
  4. Implement changes gradually –  If your child or your family has developed some unhealthy habits in relation to their devices and sleep, it’s important to incrementally roll back the family’s habits and to discuss them extensively with your children. Pick a time to discuss it when they are not stressed and not going to bed, so by the time it is bedtime, the expectations have already been set.

Digital free zones

Bedrooms

Children can potentially do anything they want and access inappropriate content in their bedrooms away from parental supervision and can develop unhealthy and disruptive sleep patterns. It’s best if bedrooms are tech-free.

Meal areas and mealtime

Mealtimes are critical for developing conversation skills, relationships and developing healthy eating habits. Mealtimes for parents and children should be screen free.

Play zones

A lot of research suggests that having screens in a play zone interferes with children’s healthy play and development.

Cars

Short car trips are an ideal way to communicate intentionally and have a chat with our children. We have a captive audience, us and our kids in a car, on the way to and from school, or an afterschool event. What a great place and way to have a snapshot into our children’s lives and to share our days together.

Healthy vision in a digital world

Reports from ophthalmologists and optometrists indicate that there are an increasing number of children presenting with myopia, near-sightedness and CVS – Computer Vision Syndrome. The earlier and greater exposure that children have on screen time, they may be at increased risk of vision ailments. Children’s screen habits can place their eyes under greater stress at an earlier age. The rapid adoption of tablets, computers and mobile devices, means that children are spending more time with backlit blue light devices, that penetrate to the back of their eyes, even before they have fully developed the protective pigments that enable them to filter out some of that harmful light.

Tips for healthy e-vision

1.         The 20-20-20-20-20 rule.  To reduce eye fatigue, it is important for children to take regular breaks from longer periods of screen use. Every 20 minutes that children use screen time, they need to be encouraged to take a break. An easy way to do this is to set a timer to take a break for at least 20 seconds away from the screen. They need to blink 20 times. That helps lubricate their eyes and prevents CVS. They should look at something that is approximately 20 metres away just to develop depth of vision and preferably do something physically active for 20 seconds like running on the spot or doing star jumps. This helps to recalibrate their posture.

2.         Encourage spending time outdoors and having screen-free days. Rest, going outside, focusing on long distance objects are a fabulous break from screen time.

3.         Minimise lighting – minimising glare. Glare from light sources reflecting off walls and screens can put a greater strain on your eyes. Minimise the glare by closing the blinds and avoid using digital devices in direct sunlight or under poor fluorescent lighting.

4.         Practice visual ergonomics.  The correct height for a screen should be approximately centred at the height of the children’s eye level. The appropriate distance for computer or a tablet is approximately 40-70cm. If children are using smaller screens, they could be slightly closer.

5.         Ambient display settings. It’s best if the brightness of the screen matches and doesn’t compete with the surrounding brightness of the room as the eyes don’t need to strain or struggle to read the screen.

6.         Limit the screen time. Excessive amounts of screen use is likely to have a detrimental impact on our children’s visual health.

Hearing health in a digital world

Audiologists confirm that they are treating an increasing number of young children and adolescents for tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and NIHL (Noise Induced Hearing Loss). The World Health Organisation estimates that well over one billion people in the world could be diagnosed with NHIL because of inappropriate and unsafe use of listening devices and exposure to noisy entertainment venues.

Symptoms of NIHL include distorted or muffled sound, feeling pressure in the ear, difficulties understanding speech or ringing sounds in the ear during times of silence. NHIL can occur as a result of exposure to a one off very loud noise, but typically to repeated exposure to sound beyond a healthy threshold over a period of time.

What is that healthy sound threshold? Research confirms that the use of headphones above 75dB can cause permanent hearing loss. However, you would be surprised to hear that many commercial headphones and ear buds can produce sounds of 130dB or more.

Tips for healthy hearing

  1. Discuss volume control. Set a maximum volume level on devices. You can often check dB level of a noisy venue or headphones/earphones on your smart phone or check the manufacturing specifications.
  2. Use noise cancelling headphones. Those are the large earmuff type of headphones, and they don’t need to be expensive ones (I got a very high-quality pair from Kogan). They not only cancel the background noise, making it easy for children to listen to music without competing sounds, but they usually have healthier maximal sound levels.
  3. Limit the time with headphones. It should be less than 1 hour a day.
  4. Don’t be a headphone pedestrian.  It’s often important for children to walk, talk and interact, or look about the world around them, rather than having headphones in their ears, unless they are out for a run or exercise.

Ergonomics, Posture and Musculoskeletal Health in the Digital Age

Physios, chiropractors and OT’s are anecdotally reporting increasing numbers of children with different musculoskeletal challenges that they attribute to the early introduction or excessive use, and unhealthy screen time habits. Studies show that more than 30 minutes exposure to screen time, whilst engaging in poor ergonomics, can result in potential neck and back issues. Obviously banning technology isn’t the solution. The real solution is teaching healthy digital ergonomic habits.

Tips for Healthy Ergonomics

  1. Break Time (see the 202020 rule).  Taking regular breaks and movement will ensure healthier posture and musculoskeletal development.
  2. Teach children correct ergonomics. It’s very important when using either a laptop or a desktop that the children’s feet should be flat on the floor, and their knees and spines should sit comfortably at 90o angles.  It is preferable to use chairs with adjustable heights, tilts and lower back supports. You can even put a cushion in the crook of the back. Its good to encourage children to lie flat on their stomach and keep their necks in a neutral position when using mobile devices or tablets, or alternatively they can use those tear shape beanbags or other devices that help place the device at a healthy angle or a healthy height.
  3. Limit the weight of school bags.  A lot of children, especially at Moriah, carry their computer or tablet and other books and belongings to and from school on a daily basis. Although our bags are well designed and quite ergonomical as a general rule, children should not be expected to carry bags that are more than 10% of their body weight for any extended period of time.

Conclusion

There is so much more to write and talk about in our discussion about healthy tech habits for our children and our families. Technology is obviously here to stay and is an ever-increasing part of lives. It brings so much benefit to learning, work, leisure, and communications. Whether we love it or loathe it as adults, our role is to help educate our children with healthy lifelong tech habits. Habits that are sustainable, realistic, and well balanced. We need to equip them with the necessary skills to look after their health and wellbeing, their learning, and their development. Some of the critical ways we can do so is to have regular and unambiguous clear discussions about our family tech habits and use, about our values and what we expose ourselves to on screens. We also need to role model healthy tech habits as a parent.

As an aside, many of the greatest tech gurus advocate for a tech free day a week, whether it’s 12 or 24 hours. In the Jewish vernacular, perhaps we can call this Shabbat. What an amazing time to disconnect from the frenetic, fast-paced world, to pick up books as a family, to play games, to explore the outdoors and to spend quality unplugged time together.

Wishing you and your families, a healthy, happy, safe, fun, productive and rejuvenating holidays with an appropriate balance of screen time.

Looking forward to seeing you all back here next year.

Chanukah sameach


Copy of Copy of Untitled (20)About the Author

Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

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