Getting The Screen Time Balance Right - A Big Part of Modern Family Life

Getting the screen time balance right is a big part of modern family life. But how do you do that? What does healthy screen-based technology (i-tech) use look like? And is i-tech really that bad for you anyway?

At Nature Play WA we are acutely aware of how confusing the screen time dilemma is. It seems like every new research article we come across says something different.  We also know from a survey of 1,000 Australian parents we conducted with support from Omo last year that parents think screens are the single biggest obstacle to kids playing outside.

So, we were really glad to have the opportunity to partner up with the Department of Communities, Meerilinga Young Children's Foundation, the Commissioner for Children and Young People and Parenting Connection WA to bring Dr Mari Swingle, a leading researcher in the field, to Perth to share some of the insights she has gained from more than 20 years of brain mapping research into the impacts of excessive screen use.

In her four-day stay in Perth Dr Swingle conducted two public lectures and ran a workshop for parenting coordinators from nine different regions of this enormous state, on top of series of media engagements and shooting a short educational video for us. We worked her pretty hard.

For the Nature Play WA team, we were fascinated to hear what Dr Swingle is seeing at the coal face as a therapist treating children and young people for a range of conditions, including i-addiction, and to hear about her research findings. It is fair to say that some of it was pretty challenging, and it certainly sparked a lot of discussion in our office, and in our homes. We imagine it did the same for you, if you were lucky enough to make one of her talks.

We were amazed by the public response. More than 500 people booked a ticket to see Dr Swingle’s talk in six days of bookings being open. And that included parents, educators, health professionals and policy makers.

Of course, no one person is going to have all the answers but Dr Swingle did share some really important information with us. And at the end of the day we all have decision to make about what information we take on and how we integrate in our lives in ways that make sense for us and for our families.

To that end we have decided to share a summary of some of the key points we have taken from Dr Swingle’s talks:

Dr Swingle's research

  • Every major independent study shows that i-tech creates and maintains addictive pathways in the brain not unlike gambling and other addictions. 
  • The brain mapping research Dr Swingle has done of the past 20 years shows that excessive screen use is creating neuronal pruning: that means it is causing loss of certain brain function starting with emotional regulation. Kids who use too much i-tech struggle to control their emotional response, particularly when i-tech is taken away.
  • There is no healthy replacement for human interaction for babies. They have a deep need to have close interaction with their caregivers and form the close attachments that will help inform their development well into later life. Use of i-tech by babies, or excessive use by parents during caregiving, can interrupt this close interaction lead to failed attachment.
  • Research shows that using i-tech within 60 minutes before bed will delay the onset of sleep for up to 90 minutes and lead to a ‘hangover; for three days.
  • i-tech addiction has been shown to maintain, or create, mental health disorders in children including anxiety depression, obsessive compulsive disorders, and learning and behaviour disorders like ADHD.

Dr Swingle's tips

  • Have rules! Remember, you are the parent and it is up to you to set the rules of tech use. Don't fall into the trap that i-tech makes parenting easier. It might work in the very short term to appease a child, but over time it will make parenting and educating your child much harder. 
  • Not all i-tech use is bad. It is not a question of if you use it, but rather why and how you use it, and how early, and for how long.
  • Positive i-tech use can be described as Integration (fits in with other important parts of our life). Problematic i-tech use can be described as Interference (gets in the way of important developmental stages or social connections)
  • If a child/adolescent deregulates (tantrums, become defiant, moody or aggressive) when asked to disengage with i-tech this is a sign of Interference.
  • Dr Swingle recommends families aim for no screen use for their children before 4-years-old, and up to 6-years-old if you can. She also recommends cautious use of i-tech up to 9, because that is the time when children’s brains are learning about communication and emotion. (Please note, this is longer than the Australian guidelines)
  • For older kids she suggests that one hour per day of i-tech appears to be the healthy cut off.
  • Establish screen free places and times. Make room for conversation, and the "blank spaces" that allow kids to process their world and build the creativity they will need to thrive in a fast changing world.
  • Avoid i-tech in the bedroom (this goes for parents too).
  • If you are going to let your kids use technology, it is best to use it early in the day, so it has the least impact on natural sleep patterns that are essential to good physical and mental health.
  • Be present. Avoid using your own i-tech when you are with your kids.
  • Have gaming be ‘truly’ social (encourage games to be played side by side)
  • Have social media be ‘truly’ social (support not replace face to face relationships)
  • Don’t be afraid to use technology to help control technology. Try installing spyware (but let your kids know your doing it) that can monitor use. You can also use Apple and Google’s free software or purchase a huge range of software to help manage screen use in your household.

Nature Play WA’s position

Nature Play WA is going to keep working in this space to try and help families find a balance between the healthy unstructured outdoor play we all know kids need and the realities of living in a technological world. We aren’t going to presume to tell you, or your schools, how to manage this delicate balance, but we are going to continue to share information and ideas to help you make informed decisions and find practical ways to implement them in your life.

Here are a few links we’d encourage you to have a look at:

R&B (Nature Play WA’s position on balancing screen use

Digital Wellbeing (screen time research and resources, including positive apps)

Common Sense Media (a great non-profit website that rates and reviews i-tech for families)

Screen Time (Apple’s i-tech monitoring and usage control program)

Digital Wellbeing (Google’s software for monitoring and controlling i-tech use)

Schedule your wifi (youtube video below showing how to program your router to turn off and on when you want)

Find out more about Dr Swingle and her research

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