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How much Screen Time Should My Child be Allowed?

Devices with screens are now everywhere, so parents face challenges that did not exist in their own childhoods.
There was a time in most of our memories when the phrase ‘screen time’ was barely used. Before it was repurposed in the 1990s, the phrase referred to the running time of a movie and was usually used by those writing about film. The term ‘screen time’ as we define it today did not exist because multiple screens did not exist. Most families had one television in the living room and this was the only screen they saw on a day to day basis.
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Over the last forty years, though, things have changed. Game consoles allowed the existing screens in homes to be used in new and interactive ways. Satellite and cable television vastly increased the number of entertainment options available. These developments led to an increase in the number of televisions in many homes while at the same time, home computing brought a new type of screen into the house. As the Internet became established and technology continued to advance, mobile devices with screens became commonplace, and now leaving the house without one seems unthinkable. Where once parents may have worried about how much TV their child watched, now they find themselves trying to calculate how much time, in addition to watching TV, they spend using a tablet, smartphone or laptop.

What are the risks?

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One of the biggest risks of excessive screen time in young children is the risk to their behaviour and attention span. Findings from a study conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta indicate that preschoolers who spend two hours or longer a day in front of screens are at greater risk of behavioural and attention problems. Information from almost 2,500 five-year old children and their families was analysed to calculate screen time. Meanwhile, parents reported on their child’s behaviour, allowing the researchers to identify indicators of emotional or behavioural problems. The study found that children who spent more time in front of a screen at three and five years old were at a higher risk of developing such problems in the future.  Sukhpreet Tamana, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Alberta and the study’s first author said,This association was greater than any other risk factor we assessed, including sleep, parenting stress, and socioeconomic factors.

In addition, there has been a lot of concern among scientists about the activities replaced by time spent in front of a screen.  While some screen time is unavoidable, it should not take the place of playtime.  Children should be spending time being active and interacting with others, as these activities are vital to their development. Children who are sedentary for long periods of time will more likely be overweight and in poorer physical health. Equally, if children are denied the opportunity to interact with their peers, they may fail to fully develop vital social skills.  Parents should ensure that their children’s free time is balanced and allows opportunities for meaningful, energetic interactions with friends, siblings and adults in a real world setting.

What are the limits?

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Currently, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following:

  • Children under eighteen months: Avoid screen time with the exception of video chatting.
  • Children aged between eighteen months and two years old: Limit screen time to high quality apps and programmes and ensure the child plays with or watches devices with adults who can help them to understand what they are seeing.
  • Children aged two to five: No more than one hour a day with an adult playing or watching with them.
  • Children aged six and above: Consistent limits on time and type of media used.

Limits like these can help parents to manage their children’s screen time and ensure that it does not become excessive. Of equal importance though is maximising the time children spend actually using devices.

The rewards of screen time

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Despite warnings about health and behaviour problems, screen time can have positive effects. There are numerous videos online that can assist children as they learn. Parents should take advantage of such resources to focus their child’s screen time in ways that are fun and beneficial to their education. Games involving puzzle solving are another fun way of doing this. Even taking the time to watch a fun cartoon with your child and talking about it afterwards can have positive effects. Ultimately, the issue of screen time comes down to balance. It is vital that children are getting enough exercise and sleep. It is also crucial that they spend time interacting with others. Parents should ensure that screen time does not interfere with these things while at the same time being actively involved with their child’s device usage. By selecting the right content and engaging with it alongside their children, parents can reap the benefits of the technology available while minimising the risk of harm.

James Patterson has been working as an educator in Singapore since 2014 and teaches at LCentral’s Bukit Timah. He has a sound understanding of phonics, and over the years he has helped many children on their journey to becoming independent readers. James understands the pressures and difficulties of the MOE English syllabus and strives to inspire each of his students to reach their potential. He is passionate about the importance of regular reading and the role it can play in the development of young learners’ vocabulary, grammar and writing skills.

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