Game over – why your children should step away from the screen
Technology-addicted kids are at risk of obesity, as well as sleep and school problems. Kathy Donaghy reports
They're connected, tech-savvy and able to navigate their way around an iPad with the skill of a seasoned user, and some of them are not even 10 years old.
Welcome to the world of today's child, one where they have more technology at their fingertips than ever before. From television sets to Xboxes and tablets, kids are getting more screen time these days.
But is technology stealing our kids? And what are the effects of all this on a generation intensely preoccupied by personal electronic devices?
Is it influencing how they learn, how they perform at school, how they interact with friends and even how they play?
Many of the devices are too first-generational for us to know yet if there is long-term emotional damage being caused. But experts are now warning that too much time in front of screens is causing problems.
And many say it's up to parents to exert control before it's too late.
Mary, a mother of five with three in their teens, says her 14-year-old son has forsaken all activities for his Xbox. Because the games are interactive and he can play online, Mary says he has even stopped going out of the house.
"All his friends – they're all on it at the same time. I find that it's made him totally lazy and impossible to get him to go out," she says.
Ever present: Jennifer Casey, with Isabel (one and a half) and Conor (10), James (8) and Matthew (6), says that while it does have a place in their home, technology is not the main focus of their daily life. Photo: Dave Meehan
Mary feels she has to go to war with her son to get him to stop playing but is determined that by the time her two younger children are older, she will be rid of all devices from the house.
And she says even though she wants them to be savvy about technology, it isn't worth the price she's now paying with her 14-year-old. She says while he was once an outgoing active boy who played football, now he has no interest in going out to socialise or play sport at all.
"I would say to parents to stay away from these type of games for as long as possible. If you do get them, make rules, rules, rules. For the younger ones I'm saying there will be no technology," she says.
In a policy statement last October, the American Academy of Pediatrics said families should make a "media-use plan" and set rules about TV, mobile phones and other devices.
That plan should include limiting kids' screen time to one or two hours a day. Parents should also keep children's rooms free of TV and internet access.
Ever present: Jennifer Casey, with Isabel (one and a half) and Conor (10), James (8) and Matthew (6), says that while it does have a place in their home, technology is not the main focus of their daily life. Photo by Dave Meehan
The association says while media can help influence kids' lives in many positive ways, too much TV and media use has been tied to obesity, sleep and school problems as well as aggression.
For Jennifer Casey, mum to Conor (10), James (8), Matthew (6) and Isabelle, one and a half, technology has its place in her children's lives but it's not the main preoccupation.
"We certainly have rules around it particularly during the week. They don't have the time to be watching screens from Monday to Friday because they have so many activities," she says.
She says that once the eldest child in a house gets a device, it does have the effect of exposing the younger ones to it and it "breaks that barrier" for the younger siblings.
Jennifer says the older boys get about half an hour on the Wii each day and while they were looking for Xboxes at Christmas, they didn't get one because Jennifer felt there were enough gadgets in the house already.
"I think screens are unavoidable – as long as you have the balance between new technology and activities. Conor has sports six days a week – his only night off is a Friday. James has activities four days a week and Matthew plays soccer, GAA and does swimming.
"It's so important that they are getting to run around. But there's great things they can do on their iPods – they can message their cousins in Tipperary and send a picture message to their grannies," she says.
Jennifer says the most important thing is to set rules as the two eldest boys enjoy being on their iPods. "Once they're on them, it's so hard for them to put them down. You have to have control over it or they could become hooked on it," she says.
Deirdre Griffin, an educational psychologist based in Dublin and a mother of three, says it's important for parents to have rules around screen time and that the international recommendation is that school-going children have no more than two hours a day.
Turn the page: Jan Redmond, with Alan and children Johnny and Matilda. Photo by Dave Meehan
She recommends that if children are watching TV, parents should try to make the experience more engaging by watching it with their kids and talking to them about what's going on.
She says there's evidence that too much screen time increases levels of depression, anxiety and emotional distress. "It's the opposite of what you want your children to be. If they've had a bad day in school the last thing you should do is leave them sitting watching the TV," says Griffin.
She says the problem is some kids are not just watching one screen but two at the same time; they could be watching TV while playing a game on a tablet for example.
Griffin gives the example of a child learning something mathematical. She says with maths you need to be able to slow down the brain to understand the problem. However, because devices and games encourage children's reactions to be lightning fast, it can make it hard for them to slow down and learn these new maths skills.
"Kids are getting quicker at things but a lot of their learning needs to be slow and they need to have the patience for slow learning. They don't have that patience – they don't have the experience of that because things are always coming at them at speed," she says.
According to Griffin, parents shouldn't use TV as a reward or a punishment as this simply makes it seem more important than it is. "Giving it too much attention just increases how much they want it," she says.
Grace O'Malley, a senior physiotherapist at Temple Street Children's Hospital, says that in their clinics they see children who are getting more than 25 hours of screen time a week from iPads to Xboxes. More commonly, she says they are using them at the same time.
O'Malley says the bottom line is that time spent on a screen is time not spent doing an activity or interacting. She says the research also shows that watching too much TV increases the incidence of obesity in children and adults and with children particularly it also affects sleep.
"Some parents feel that television helps their children sleep but in most cases it distracts them from sleep. A TV in a bedroom is something parents should definitely avoid," says O'Malley.
She says parents must also practise what they preach and if they are doing homework with a child, they should focus on that and not be distracted by phones or checking their Twitter account. Particularly at meal times, O'Malley says families must make a big effort to sit down and switch off all devices and just catch up.
RTÉ's Arts and Media Correspondent Sinead Crowley says she is probably at the strict end of the scale when it comes to the amount of screen time her children get.
Mother to two boys Conor (4) and Seamus (1), Sinead says her children have very limited screen time and this is a definite choice on her and her husband's part.
In the evening their eldest son gets around 40 minutes of television and while the younger one would be ambling around while the TV is on, he's not getting any TV aimed at him specifically just yet
Acknowledging that she's no saint in this regard, she says sometimes the TV will go on if the weather is bad. However, she says she prefers her eldest son to watch something with a "beginning, a middle and an end" rather than let him watch a kids' channel where one programme rolls into the next.
"I know there are educational apps out there and I'm sure I'll start using them but I'd rather they would read a book. I think going to the movies is great and if you can watch them as a family that's even better," she says.
However, she says it is hard enough for her as a grown adult not to check her phone every 15 minutes, so how can you expect a child to be able to cope with this kind of technology.
Sinead, who has just completed her first novel Can Anybody Help Me?, with a storyline about the dangers that lurk in an online world, is very cautious about introducing gadgets and devices to her children.
Sinead and her husband will monitor what their children can access for as long as they can. "I'm not going to put it into their hands before they ask for it," she says.
'I'm not a Luddite, but I want them to be able to play outdoors'
Jan Redmond, a mother of two from Harold's Cross in Dublin, says that she has always felt very strongly about the amount of time she allows her children to spend on screen.
As a child, Jan never watched much TV and thinks that her lack of enthusiasm for spending time looking at a screen stems from this.
Jan, a journalism tutor at Ballyfermot College of Further Education, says that she was very strict with her two children, Johnny (6) and Matilda (4), until they were two years old.
Now, she allows them to spend no more then 30 minutes a day looking at a screen. "We don't have Nintendos or games. This year we did buy a little mini-laptop with educational games on it. They do play some games on my phone as well.
"I don't want to eliminate fun out of their lives. I remember one of my friends said to me she had no TV growing up and felt she did not have the shared cultural experience of TV viewing," she says.
"Our TV has been broken since July and there's been a complete reduction in their screen time. The kids are playing so much more together. They can self-entertain rather than depend on an external thing to do it for them," says Jan.
"I know iPads can be very educational and I want them to learn from digital technology, too. I'm certainly not a Luddite who believes all technology is wrong. I love the idea of learning from technology."
However, Jan says she wants the focus on their childhoods to be on the outdoors and on being able to just play.
"I'm not going to rule out what they will have. I'm going to try and prolong it as much as I can."