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Limiting screen time only part of how parents can help kids manage technology

Most children spend some time in front of a screen, and it's a big conundrum for parents. (Thinkstock)

As a technology consultant who trains everyone from teenagers to seniors on how to use mobile devices, Guillermo Serrano knows all about the lure of digital screens.

“People, even young ones, use their phones for more than just calling or texting,” said the Vancouver-based mobile expert and educator. “It’s an alarm clock, it’s a diversion, it’s [a] form of entertainment and there is a constant need to feel connected to it all the time.”

Walk down any street or down the hallway of a school (or anywhere, really) and it’s hard to catch the eye of someone walking alone; they’re usually looking down at their phone.

Too much screen time, it has been speculated, can be harmful.

Now researchers at the University of Alberta’s physical education and psychology departments are teaming up to seek answers as to the impact of screen time and the assumptions that digital screens are beneficial for learning.

The researchers already know that physical activity and reading were positively linked to children’s cognitive development after reviewing the literature that have been published. A second review of published research showed that screen time, especially watching TV, had either no association or a negative association with cognitive development.

This Christmas, electronic toys and apps are among the most anticipated gifts being targeted at young children. The impact of such sedentary activities on early childhood cognitive development is under scrutiny by the U of A researchers.

Valerie Carson, an assistant professor in the faculty of physical education and recreation, and Sandra Wiebe, an associate professor in the department of psychology, are researching the positive effects of physical activity and at the same time looking at the potentially negative effects of sedentary behaviour on early childhood cognitive development.

Though the research is ongoing, early results clearly point out, not surprisingly, the positive role physical activity plays in development children’s ability to think and understand. Sedentary behaviour may have a negative impact on developing those abilities.

Carson said scientific literature found a majority concluded physical activity is positive for brain development.

Another review showed screen time was not associated with or had detrimental associations with cognitive development in a majority of studies analyzed. Reading and being read to also showed beneficial associations with cognitive development.

“The findings challenge the assumption that screens are beneficial for learning,” Carson said in a University of Alberta release. “We understand that children and their parents cannot be active every minute of the day so our findings suggest a sedentary activity like reading is more beneficial to brain development than screen time.”

Setting an example

Mobile expert Serrano said taking time away from screens is a challenge for parents and that habit creates challenges for their kids to stop checking devices continuously throughout the day. But the habit can be changed if everyone in the family takes steps to back away from staring at their screens and disconnect in order to reconnect by doing simple things like reading books and magazines together.

“One thing I advise is at the end of the day, everyone leaves their phones to charge overnight in a central area like a hallway table or in the kitchen,” Serrano said. “No one, not even busy working parents, need to have the phone right by their beds. Buy clocks for your bedside table instead.”

Technology researcher and writer Alexandra Samuel, who has spent the last two years conducting a series of surveys on how families manage technology gathering data from more than 10,000 parents in the U.S. and Canada, said concerns about screen time isn’t new.

“Worrying about kids and screens goes back to the early days of television,” she said. “Kids are spending more time on screens than ever and on a more wide range of screens than ever and the impact of those screens is much more varied and complicated than it needs to be.”

Samuel’s research based on the 10,000 parents she surveyed found they generally fall into three categories: There are the parents who she calls digital enablers who allow their kids to set the agenda in the household of how much screen time and access to have (a lot). There is also a group she calls digital limiters in which these parent inhibit or limit their kids’ screen times. Then finally there is a group of parents Samuel calls digital mentors. They actively guide and connect with their kids through technology such as playing video games with them more than enablers and limiters.

Playing games with your child instead of just limiting them can have a hugely positive impact. (Thinkstock)

“It’s a huge mistake for parents to be keeping their nine or 10 year olds off the Internet because even the most ardent limiters I know recognize that by the time their kids are teenagers, they’re going to need to be on the Internet for school and quite possibly for part of their social life and their creative life,” she said.

Samuel said parents who engage with their children through technology as early as their elementary school years will have an easier time of talking to their kids about the topic by the time the children become teenagers.

“That’s the window of actually shaping and guiding them of what it means to use the Internet responsibly,” she said.