David Coleman: Think twice before giving an iPad this Christmas
Today's digital natives need more than just the odd break from technology
I'M SITTING in my office trying to write this article, and am also, supposedly in charge of my three children. Thankfully they are older (from nine up to 15) and so they are pretty good at keeping themselves amused.
If I venture out of my office, however, I am sure that I will find they are amused with some form of digital device, computer game or the TV. Today I am being pragmatic and staying in my office, rather than going to argue with them about doing something else to pass the time.
But on other days I do take the argument forward with them about the amount of digital media they want to consume. As they get older it is becoming an increasingly difficult argument.
There is pressure from them directly, as well as a social pressure from their peers to be switched on to a screen somewhere, be it on their phone, a tablet, a laptop, the TV or the computer monitor.
I am sure that I am not alone in bemoaning the amount of time that they want to spend stuck behind a screen. I think there are very many parents who worry about just how digitally dependent their children seem to be.
But, for all of our worry about their time spent looking at screens, we also recognise that it is important for children to become computer literate as part of their overall development.
We are also realistic about the fact that sometimes it just works to let our children tune in to the TV while we try to achieve one of the many jobs that need to be done in the house.
Increasingly schools are considering digital learning, using texts contained on tablet devices rather than school books. This too, if it becomes the norm, will increase both the prevalence of tablets and the number of hours our children will need to be in front of a screen.
So we have a dilemma.
The screens are not going away any time soon. We need to work with our children and teenagers as they find their way in an increasingly digital world. But at the same time, we also need to be able to balance that usage so that it stays healthy and productive.
For most parents, that will probably mean reducing the amount of time that children spend in front of the TV, the games console or the iPad.
US research estimates that children and teenagers spend an average of six hours per day watching TV or other screen-based media.
That is about 40 hours of screen time every week! Taking computer gaming alone, research shows that between 93pc and 98pc of children and teenagers play video games.
The amount that they play varies according to different studies but children and teenagers will play, on average, between 14 and 20 hours of computer or video games per week.
In practice, then, our children seem to be doing little else but watching something on a screen when they are not in school. It is a worrying trend.
There is increasing evidence to show that this amount of time in front of a screen is not good for children's health. We need to return to the old adage of "all things in moderation".
Let's start at the beginning and look at the under-threes. All of the advice is to keep children away from technology entirely.
The American Academy of Paediatrics has concluded that media, both in the foreground and the background, have potentially negative effects and no known positive effects for children under two.
There is no data to support an argument that very young children will be at a disadvantage when they start school if they are prevented from using technology before this time.
I read that pre-school institutions in Belgium display warnings that TV for toddlers encourages passivity, slows language acquisition, develops over-excitedness, hinders concentration and sleep and fosters dependence.
Other research looking specifically at the area of sleep has shown that the amount of screen time children have is associated with their production of melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone that we need to produce to sleep well.
The study, which looked at children aged between six and 12, found that when these children's screen time was reduced their melatonin levels increased by 30pc.
Watching television has been linked to greater obesity levels in children and to the increase in Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Some of the research shows that eating food in front of the TV changes our appetites and can lead to 'mindless' eating.
When we eat in this way we don't pay attention to the amount of food we eat as we are distracted by what we are watching. Consequently we are always at risk of eating more because we don't get, or heed, the messages from our stomachs that we are full.
One study in Cornell University in the US demonstrated that simply reducing the amount of time children were allowed to spend in front of a screen led to an increase in their physical activity.
Sometimes we think we will have to invest our time in activating children. But this study showed that parents didn't even have to do anything to encourage them to be more active. Children simply find more active things to do when they are not stuck at a screen.
I hear all of this evidence and I am tempted to ban all screens all of the time. But I am a realist too and I recognise this is an impractical and curmudgeonly reaction.
I love watching TV. I use a laptop every day. I use my phone to access the internet and at times to play games. I would be a total hypocrite to prevent my children from using all digital media.
But what I do have are some good reasons to negotiate and argue with them about why I hold my view that there is such a thing as too much TV.
You may also have made your own observations about your children, that they become lethargic, grumpy, fractious or aggressive after an extended period of time playing computer games or watching TV.
This too adds weight to your rationale for restricting their screen time.
I often get asked what is the 'right' amount of time to let children watch TV for, or play computer games for. I often fudge my answer with a politically correct response that each family must make up its own mind.
But today I'm going to nail my colours to the mast, so to speak, and give you my guidelines for how much screen time I think is enough for different aged children. At each age level, the amount of time constitutes what I believe to be a healthy maximum, not a minimum!
If you choose to let your children use screen-based media less than I suggest that is fine too.
My advice is based on a summary of some research and doesn't mean you have to take it on board. But your children may be healthier, and happier in the long run, if you do.
If your child is aged under three don't let them near a screen at all. Keep your TV covered with a cloth until after they are gone to bed. Keep your phone out of reach and tell their auntie to keep her iPad to herself when you visit.
Between the ages of three and seven you could let them have a maximum of a half hour a day, or maybe a weekly movie.
From eight to 12 years of age you could increase it to an hour a day and maybe two at the weekend.
For teenagers you can still limit it to two hours a day, including Facebook, with extra time, perhaps, at the weekends.
If your house is one where the TV is a constant background buzz, or where you find yourself and your offspring drifting for hours on the internet or social media then you have a bit of an uphill battle.
It is always easier to proactively create screen time as a treat for a child who has rarely had access to it. It is much harder to pull it back where children see it as their right and have a fair expectation to be allowed unlimited access.
Ultimately, we do need to make sure that our children have balance in their lives. Too much of anything is a bad thing. These are choices we must make on their behalf.
Which reminds me, I have three of them who have not had paternal influence for some time. A good row about now being the time to switch off should set us all up for a lovely dinner ... not!