Is it realistic to expect the 21st century child to be screen free? Gwen Loughman doesn’t think so but felt a detox was necessary and reduced and monitored screen time is vital

Sleep deprivation, grouchiness and the reduced ability to focus are all symptomatic of too much cyber time... and the antidote can only be more green time

Let those who are without sin cast the first stone. Or in my case, don’t complain that your kids spend too much time on handheld devices if you have a mild addiction to social media yourself.

I regularly ask no one in particular how my mother did it, raising twice the number of children I have without a landline, mobile phone, internet or the use of a car. As a result of growing up during a time without such devices, I have very happy and solid memories. Instead of screen time, my siblings and I had lashings of green time and I would like for my own kids to have the same.

It is possibly no coincidence that I happened upon research from the American Academy of Paediatrics stating that eight– 18 year olds can spend an average of seven hours a day using media entertainment. They recommend that infants under two years should not be exposed to technology at all and those between three-five years not to be allowed more than two hours a day.

My four boys are aged between 10 and five; they swim and play sports regularly. They very much enjoy the outdoors, the trampoline gets much love and attention but it would be a ginormous untruth to claim they aren’t fond of their screen time too.

Do children spend too much time looking at screens?

However, today’s 21st century child is growing up surrounded by technology, and I feel strongly that it is an unrealistic expectation for them to be completely screen free. And does an outright ban on anything ever work? Surely, a restriction serves only to produce the opposite end result? If your child’s device has been removed, won’t they simply seek out a friend who has one? What’s the preferred choice — your child using his tablet beside you where usage can be monitored or them using someone else’s out of sight?

Allison Keating, psychologist with the bWell Clinic in Malahide wholly agrees that over exposure to screens is detrimental to our children’s well-being. “It leads to quicker behavioural melt-downs,” says Keating. “They feel wired and tired and have conflicting feelings of apathy and aggression.”

Sleep deprivation, grouchiness and the reduced ability to focus are all symptomatic of too much cyber time and Allison believes, “the antidote can only be more green time to soothe over-stimulated and sensitive brains”. She is in favour of an electronics fast for two weeks followed by the slow reintroduction of devices including fair usage warnings.

I didn’t anticipate my detox pitch to be embraced with open arms, and as expected, it was met with horrified and outraged protestations. In the interest of fairness, I agreed to abstain from social media. Initially, I worried about my coping skills if I couldn’t escape with a cup of coffee in front of Facebook, as was my previous habit.

So how did we get on? It wasn’t easy. There was the inevitable griping and moaning about boredom. I almost caved under the deluge of complaints concerning the unfair hand life had just dealt them. And in case I forgot, there were hourly reminders that I was the meanest mother alive.

When things threatened to snowball out of control, I employed the distraction technique from my earlier parenting days. We baked, so much so we might have to tackle a sugar detox next. There were lots of walks, we visited the swimming pool, went on picnics, the dreaded paints were resurrected and one boy rediscovered his love of reading. The playground was great when we reached breaking point.

Do children spend too much time looking at screens?

The big hit though was a digital camera dug out of storage. They were given a list of items to photograph and catalogue.

Unsurprisingly, as is usually the way of such things, we settled into a routine. I resisted pointing out how much fun they were having and acknowledged that I wasn’t missing anything at all over on the virtual channel.

Now that we are still a few days away from winding up our detox, it has occurred to me to extend it. But there is a limit to what I can get away with.

However, I plan on implementing the following challenge over summer holidays in another effort to dilute the effects of their gadgets.

Following their morning ablutions, youngsters are asked to complete, in their own time, 20 minutes each of reading, writing or colouring. They must clean one room of their choice. Play outside for 30 minutes and separate from that, make or build something creative. They are also requested to help someone in the family with one other job. When these tasks are complete, then and only then are they allowed TV or iPad time. The irony of having found this little gem on Facebook is not lost on me.

An outright screen ban may not be realistic but reduced and monitored usage is certainly achievable.


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