A healthy screen diet for children

Written by Sally Kenney, School Psychologist

Did you know there are more screens than people in most Australian households? The mean amount of devices per household on there is internet access is 6, 7 if you have a child under 15 in your home. Recent data has found that 52% of 14-17 year olds access the web via at least two devices, with 30% accessing on a least three. Between 2011 and 2015 the proportion of 14-17 year olds getting online via a smart phone increased by almost 400%.

Adolescents spend a lot of their time online engaged in study related activities: researching, downloading, and submitting work. They spend time streaming entertainment, a similar amount of time that would otherwise be spent watching television. Young people love social networking and gaming has a significant appeal to teens, with many gamesplayed online with people from around Australia and around the world. It’s easy to get online, but for some it can difficult to get off.

There are concerns about how young people are coping with increasing access to the internet: the potential dangers of identity theft, online predators, cyberbullying, procrastination and even addiction. Dr Philip Tam, a consultant psychiatrist and academic at Macquarie University in Sydney, has presented at a range of conferences and workshops about problematic internet overuse.  He says that the internet is so appealing because it offers young people so much reinforcement in one convenient space. He refers to the “Holy Trinity of Attraction”: connection, agency and reward.

Connection: I belong

Young people consider social media part of their social lives, with their online and offline worlds often interwoven. Teens not on social media can feel anxious as they miss out on significant proportions of their peer group’s interactions, especially on weekends and holidays. The internet offers young people a huge range of communities to connect with. Online, adolescents can inhabit, in real time, the same space as their idols and might even get a chance to interact with them. It’s hugely appealing and very reinforcing.

Agency: I matter

The internet allows young people to create and contribute, from uploading a video, offering a handy tip in an online forum or signing and sharing an online petition for a cause close to their hearts.

Rewards: I matter to others

The internet offers young people quick and easy rewards for very little effort. Researching for a project can be done without needing to leave the house. Joining a community is as easy as signing up. If you’re on the right mailing list, the right Facebook group, follow the right Instagram accounts, you can access a world of rewards: special offers, pre-release tickets, secret shows.

One of the most reinforcing rewards the internet gives young people is acknowledgement that they exist and are worthy of attention, even if that attention consists merely of a click of the “like” heart. Young people need to know that they have a place and matter in the world, and amassing a large collection of followers, friends or subscribers can give a sense of that.

Dr Tam also describes the internet as the adolescent’s “secret zone”, a place where they can explore and express themselves out of the view of their parents. Where past generations might have written in a diary or had a secret box of treasures under the bed, this generation have the net. This can be a source of alarm for parents, who are frequently warned about the dangers of online predators, fraudsters, cyberbullies and other nasties. We worry about what they will find online and how we can protect them from it all. But for young people, the potential rewards far outweigh the possible risks.

So is the internet actually addictive?

There is research into online gaming that indicates that those 1-2% of the population who display clinically significant overuse requiring intervention may experience a neurological response to going online similar to a heroin user taking heroin or a gambling addict playing a poker machine. A greater proportion, 5-10% may not be as severely impacted but might still display what experts term “problematic overuse”, where at least one area of normal functioning is impacted.

What to look for

You might want to have a conversation with your child about their internet use if you notice:

Sleep deprivation

      • Adolescents need around 9 hours sleep a night. The adolescent body prefers to stay up late (and sleep in accordingly), and the lure of the internet can be hard to resist when you’re not ready for bed. The light stimulation from interacting with a screen can delay the release of melatonin, the body’s natural sleep-inducing hormone. Additionally, young people might lie awake processing what’s just gone on online, particularly if there’s been an interaction that’s agitated or excited them. Sleep experts recommend turning all screens off at least half an hour before going to bed.

Decreased academic performance

      • As well as the obvious impact sleep deprivation has on academic performance, the internet offers endless avenues of procrastination, which is hard to avoid when students also need to be online to do their homework. When a young person is engrossed in what is happening online, the flow they experience may be far more reinforcing than doing school work that they find difficult or tedious. There is software available which allows users to lock themselves out of certain applications at specified periods of time.

Withdrawal from offline activities

    • If it seems that your child’s world is shrinking, with their preference changing to online activities where they used to be more active offline, it’s worth investigating why. There is evidence that sedentary habits in childhood persist into adolescence, with a correlation between excessive internet use and elevated BMI. It may be that your child is finding their activities online more rewarding than offline activities, so investigate alternatives.

What about younger children?

Engaging interactions with peers and adults are vital for young children’s development. With much available on screens, it can be hard for parents to discern what is valuable as a learning experience, what is fun and what is potentially harmful. The most recent guidelines issued by the American Academy of Paediatrics suggest that for school-aged children, there should be consistent limits placed on the amount of screen time they have in order to help them achieve a healthy balance of fun activities. You may want to develop a Family Media Plan, to set some limits around screen time.

Merging the online and real world

Looking for opportunities to link the online and offline worlds for children can see screen time become a positive tool for learning as we encourage children to learn, explore and make connections. For example, a trip to the zoo may provoke some online research about a favourite animal. Or you might encourage your child to take their Minecraft activities off the screen and draw designs on paper.

Managing the risks

    • Time spent engaged with electronic devices is more often than not sedentary time. This has implications for ongoing health and development. See here for more information on physical activity recommendations.
    • Spending long periods of time looking at a screen can cause sore and irritated eyes, headaches and fatigue. Encourage your child to take regular breaks and look at a point away from the screen. You might want to remind your child that physical pain or discomfort is often our body’s way of telling us that we need to stop what we’re doing before damage is done.
    • Looking down at a device can cause pain and discomfort in your child’s neck and spine. Make sure that they are using devices in an ergonomic way and that they get up and move around regularly http://www.bubhub.com.au/hubbub-blog/smart-phone-child-health-and-posture/ .
    • At a time when your child’s neural connections are being ‘pruned’, the connections that are being used the most frequently are the ones that persist. For example, there is some research that indicates that young people who spend a lot of time playing computer games are developing great fine motor skills at the expense of gross motor skills. This is another reason why exposing your child to a range of experiences is important.

Safety is always a priority and sadly there are people in the world who use the internet to exploit children’s vulnerabilities. Your child learns about internet safety at school, so let them teach you what they’ve learned. When your child wants to explore a new app, take the time to look at the privacy settings with them instead of just clicking ‘I agree’ to get started quickly.

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