Ed Power: How I banned screen time for my kids when I realised they were addicted
For years, Ed Power happily let his children enjoy TV, iPads and smartphones - until he realised they were becoming addicted. Now it's zero tolerance
'Can I have your phone?" "I want to play Pokemon Go" "When am I allowed watch YouTube again?" If you have kids and you have screens - be it smartphone, tablet or that museum piece squatting in the corner of the living room (the TV, as our ancestors used to call it) - such are the questions you may spend your waking hours batting away.
One of my three children went through a phase of habitually tip-toeing into our bedroom before dawn to requisition my Samsung Galaxy. Another became a Pokemon Go fanatic, to the point where he would rather hunt Geodudes and Magikarps than go cycling or accompany his siblings to the playground. For a period of their short lives, all three refused to eat unless mealtime was accompanied by YouTube.
My eldest was born early in 2010 - making him precisely the same age as the original iPad. His childhood has thus paralleled the rise of 21st century screen addiction. When he was very tiny, I would read to him interactive storybooks on my first generation device.
With their shiny colours and springy sound effects, they seemed so much more exciting than the boring old ink and paper variety. By manipulating the screen he could make the characters jump, wiggle and stick out their tongues. Today, I look back and wonder what I was thinking.
The debate around children and screen time may have reached a point of crisis in Ireland, with a new ESRI/Trinity College survey suggesting an epidemic of over-exposure. More than 50pc of boys and nearly 40pc of girls aged seven and eight watch in excess of three hours of screen-time - including TV, smartphone and video games - at weekends. During weekdays, 23pc of children in that age bracket whose mothers have a second-level education were gazing at screens longer than 180 minutes.
With childhood obesity rates rising in tandem with increased screen usage, clearly this is an issue about which there needs to be a national conversation.
"As a speech and language therapist working in the area of child development, I'm seeing that children overall are spending too much time on screens," says Karen O'Connor of the Child Development Centre in Galway. "It is having a negative effect on their attention levels. This can impact on behaviour as the child can become more agitated and less available as the result of long periods on screens.
"Also the screens are having a seriously negative impact on the development of optimum visual skills in the under sevens as they are doing too much close-up work, i.e. on the screen, and not exercising the eye muscles relating to looking in the distance.
"Optimum vision involves both. I was just talking to a teacher this morning who spoke about how the screens are impacting on parent/child interaction and ultimately how they relate and communicate."
A link has also been established between screen exposure and lower self esteem and emotional problems. Excessive screen time - in this instance defined as over four hours a day - was connected to anxiety and depression by a 2013 study by Public Health England: "Higher levels of TV viewing are having a negative effect on children's well-being, including lower self-worth, lower self-esteem and lower levels of self-reported happiness."
Such warnings may cause parents' blood to run cold. When my kids were younger I was blasé about their access to screens (though obviously not to the point of letting them watch more than three hours a day). How cute, I thought, that they were able to manipulate iPad apps or that, for months after Halloween, they would insist on watching scary singalong zombie videos on YouTube.
However, it quickly became clear that their relationship with the screen was spiralling. Whenever boredom threatened, their first instinct was to demand the nearest adult surrender their phone.
More than that, I became uneasy about the material they were accessing on YouTube - to this day, somewhat of a wild west of broadcasting. In one video about the solar system, the narrator, apropos of nothing, dropped an f-bomb. Then there are all those creepy toy-unboxing videos in which adults coo over the latest My Little Pony or Play-Doh expansion. What sort of grown-up gets excited over a new Play-Doh set?
Experts often distinguish between good and bad screen time. Watching a movie with your kids is very different to allowing them zone out with Angry Birds for three hours. In its recommendations on appropriate screen exposure, the Mayo Clinic, for example, advocates computers and televisions be placed in "shared spaces".
Ever more alarmed at my kids' irritability when separated from these precious screens, my wife and I went zero tolerance. The tablet purchased for the eldest vanished in the attic. Phones at mealtimes were forbidden, extended family members quietly asked to cease handing over their handsets as the kids demanded.
The children whined - but not as much as I had expected. Indeed, the fewer the opportunities for screen access, the less they wanted to zonk out in the first place. Instead, as appropriate, we now make a conscious effort to sit down to shows as a family. Because I'm a nerd, I also encourage them to play board games.
This isn't necessarily a formula for domestic bliss. Where you have three children and a bucket of My Little Pony figures, you still soon have at least one squealing kid and another who looks guilty because they've just thumped someone.
But it's an improvement on zombified under-10s gawping at flickering displays. Decades may have elapsed before we fully understand the impact of smartphones and tablets on children growing up today. Until we know more, it's best surely to err on the side of prudence.
Smarter screen-time: How to set limits
1. Insist that certain parts of the day be screen-free
Screen exposure before bed can disrupt sleep, so make it clear to your children that pre-goodnight sessions with the iPad are out. Ditto with mealtime — and also make an effort to carve out a period every day when the family does something together.
2. Implement clear rules
Kids benefit from routine, so make sure they understand when they can and cannot use screens. If you’re making it up as you go, they may be become frustrated.
3. Monitor your own device usage
Telling kids they can’t have phones at dinner only to then spend the meal with your head buried in Twitter sends mixed signals, putting it mildly. So set an example and put your device away.
4. Monitor what they are watching as well as for how long
As your children grow older, it is important to keep tabs on the kind of content they are accessing. It can be easy to stumble upon inappropriate content on YouTube, and if they are watching Netflix, ensure they can’t access programming suitable only for grown-ups.
5. Insist on educational apps and videos
If your kids absolutely demand screentime — and you can’t for whatever reason bring yourself to say no — push for content that has problem solving or other educational aspects.