Screen time is parenting's new frontier
Concern as research shows damaging effects on kids' sleep
When 15-year-old Ben Watson emerges from his room each morning, he has black rings under his eyes and is "clearly shattered", says his mom, Vicky, who recently discovered he was using his phone to go online into the early hours.
The Cape Town mother has since removed the phone at bedtime, and is left with a teenager who is "miserable, complaining, and accusing me of treating him like a small child". But he falls asleep at night and stays that way.
The case of the Watson* family is not unusual. An international study shows that this occurs across the globe, with damaging effects on the next generation.
Because their brains and eyes are still developing, children and adolescents are far more vulnerable to the sleep disruptions brought on by screen time, say researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder.Nikki Bush, co-author of Tech-Savvy Parenting, said we are still in the early phases of figuring out how to manage rapidly evolving technology. "We are not living in an either-or world. Life is happening on-screen and off-screen. But the introduction of screens has blurred the lines between night and day, and work and play."
Bush said teens stayed connected after dark for social reasons. "It's more about being included in the group. Things like Instagram and Snapchat keep you in the conversation, so you're afraid to disconnect."
This leads to addictive behaviour, encroaching on sleep and having consequences for real social interactions and performance at school.
"That is why parents have to get involved and put boundaries in place, even though they're competing with the flood of endorphins kids are getting from their screens.
"We need to have conversations with our children about sleep hygiene so they can understand we are not punishing them. We also need to make sure they're having real interactions face-to-face where you can see, touch and feel the humanness of somebody else," she said.
Then again, it's hard to control the problem when schools are feeding into it. Watson said: "At primary school, iPads were introduced in Grade 4. Our lives changed from that very day, but he was young and it was easier to manage."
Now, they're immersed in a nightmare fuelled by Ben's high school. "Their teachers and sports coaches have all set up WhatsApp groups and that's how they communicate information to the boys. That makes it much harder for the parents to discipline or control screen time," she said.
* Not their real names
• Limit children’s media use in the hour before bedtime.
• Turn off all electronic media devices at bedtime; charge them outside bedrooms.
• Remove all electronic media from your child’s bedroom, including TVs, video games, computers, tablets, and cellphones.
• Monitor behaviour. — Source: University of Colorado Boulder
• Author Nikki Bush says: “Keep an eye on your child’s emotional state. What is technology displacing? If it is sleep, to the point they can’t concentrate and are ratty, they need less time on devices. If it is replacing real play, cut back. Your child gives you the cue.”