Digital technology has become an integral and inescapable part of our daily lives, providing us with information at our fingertips and access to connect whenever and with whomever we wish. As adults we have become more and more reliant on electronic devices, and they feature prominently in the daily lives of children at home, at school and socially. While the value of these devices cannot be underestimated, there is a growing awareness of the harm excessive exposure to them can do to children's cognitive, emotional, social and overall development and well-being. Research reveals that children start using digital devices as young as six months of age. By their teens, some children use screen-based media for up to seven hours daily.
Between birth and age three the brain develops quickly and is particularly sensitive to the outside world. This is known as the critical period because the changes that happen in the brain during these first tender years become the permanent foundation upon which all later brain function is built. The development occurs mainly through direct interaction with the environment. Seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling are the primary ways we experience our world, so if we are not using these five senses, then we are not learning to the best of our brains' abilities.
According to one expert, too much screen time too soon "is the very thing impeding the development of the abilities that parents are so eager to foster through the tablets. The ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention, to sense other people's attitudes and communicate with them, to build a large vocabulary—all those abilities are harmed."
Research has shown that when children of any age spend excessive time in "virtual world interactions", they are found to be at risk of developing learning disabilities. They have a decreased attention span and increased hyperactivity. They often find it difficult to deal with their emotions and have trouble socialising with their peers. A relationship has been reported between screen time and general health because children spend long periods being sedentary instead of engaging in physical activity.
As expected, too much screen time has an impact on vision and visual development. Eye care specialists report a marked increase in children with computer vision syndrome, previously seen predominantly in adults. Children are experiencing fatigue, eye strain, dry eyes, blurry vision, headaches, and neck and shoulder pain. There is a world-wide increase in short-sightedness (myopia) which is believed to be at least partly linked to the increase in time spent looking at digital devices. There is evidence to suggest that children who spend more time outdoors are at lower risk of developing myopia.
Extended time in front of computers and hand-held devices is visually demanding, requiring the eyes to converge and focus for lengthy periods. Sudden onset misalignment of the eyes (crossed eyes) seems to be becoming more common. Some people find that their ability to change focus when looking at various distances is not as quick or effective as it once was.
In spite of the negative effects of over-exposure to digital screens, they are here to stay and do have many benefits that cannot be discounted or ignored. In fact, some experts are of the opinion that having no access to the digital world has a negative impact on children. Screen time itself is not harmful but certain reasonable guidelines need to be followed to ensure that their benefits are maximised, and the dangers minimised. It is up to parents to help their children become digitally literate, by being aware that what children are watching, playing and reading is high quality and age-appropriate. While parents have been advised to limit screen time, research suggests that it is the nature rather than the amount of screen time and the role technology plays in family life that matters. One study found that the way parents set rules about screen time and being actively involved in the digital world with their children is more important than time spent on digital devices.
When working on a computer, the closer the screen, the greater demand on the eyes. With a TV, the further away the better. Ideally, a desktop computer screen should be no closer than 70cm to 80cm. In addition, the child's seat should be raised, or the screen lowered so that they are looking slightly down on the computer screen, rather than up or straight ahead. This is a more comfortable position for the eye muscles. Provide optimal room and screen lighting to reduce eye strain. Encourage practicing the 20-20-20 rule - after every 20 minutes of screen time, take a 20-second break and look 20 feet away. Children need to be reminded to blink frequently to lubricate the eyes.
Balance screen time with outdoor play. It is important that children use their eyes to look at things far away as well as up close. They need to learn how to accurately track objects such as moving balls, to make good visual estimates of distances, and to develop the use of their peripheral vision. These visual skills can't be developed if children spend all their time in front of a two-dimensional screen.
Ultimately, children should be in control of their screens rather than have their screens control them. They should know that technology is only one part of their world, understand the clear boundaries between the virtual world and the real one, and separate themselves from the screen in order to explore new experiences and take part in physical activities. It is the duty of parents to guide their children towards achieving the balance between the online and offline worlds.