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Is it healthy to let children play on electronic gadgets?


Stacey, Willo and kids Ella (11), Edie (9) and Liam (6)

Stacey, Willo and kids Ella (11), Edie (9) and Liam (6)

Peadar Maxwell

Peadar Maxwell


We all know that children should spend less time in front of a screen and more time using their imagination and playing outdoors. But a new study has shown that the effects of over-using technology can be far more damaging.

Writing in the journal Psychology Today, Dr Victoria Dunkley says children who are exposed to too much screen time can become depressed, anxious and to the other extreme, hyperactive.

In fact, she goes as far as to say that some children are actually being misdiagnosed and treated for conditions such as ADHD and bipolar disorder when they simply need to 'fast' from technology for a period of time, until their brains 'reboot' and the nervous system 'resets' itself.

Senior child psychologist Peadar Maxwell says it's difficult to ascertain whether or not children are being misdiagnosed but too much time in front of a screen is definitely not a good thing.

"It's hard to say that diagnoses are made incorrectly as one may not be familiar with the details of the assessment which concluded with a particular condition," he says.

"However it is possible to imagine the link between having one's attention split by too much time staring into a small device or by a lack of green-time, [the modern term for life away from a screen].

"Time spent in nature, playing, using one's imagination and chatting with friends face-to-face enhance our ability to be mindful, to notice change and to develop keen social skills such as reading facial expressions and matching them with language."

The Wexford-based expert says while cutting back on technology is a good thing, a complete ban should be carefully thought out.

"Having a screen fast or cutting out devices altogether is pretty radical," he says.

"A parent would need to be confident and sure of their motivation and to have a plan. The child would require a reasonable explanation for why this is happening after their parent has previously allowed them to sit looking at a screen for as long as it took to become a problem.

"I haven't read Dr Victoria Dunckley's book on the topic, but I think reducing or eliminating screen time can be a good idea where self-regulating time on interactive games or devices has become a problem.

"If a child is diagnosed with an attention problem or with anxiety it can make sense to go back to basics in terms of sleep, diet and activity in an attempt to boost the child's ability to sleep well and feel energised to focus and exercise.

"Also, children who sit and stare for long periods of time have been reported to experience back and neck pain, reduced attention and concentration ability and to find falling asleep difficult.

"Just as we would eliminate an unhealthy food or poor posture if we had more obviously physical symptoms, we can also help our children to manage the time they spend on devices and away from others and nature."

While it has been established that too much screen time is negative, the question most parents want to know is how much is too much?

"Younger children should spend very little time on devices or they will become dependent on them rather than imagining and entertaining themselves," says Dr Maxwell.

"Older children can become preoccupied by other peoples' status and crave the feedback they get from likes, shares and comments.

"While screen time can be fun and useful, the danger lies in becoming overly dependent on devices for interaction and entertainment instead of talking, playing and reading.

"Parents who shy away from learning how devices and apps work put their children at further risk by not supervising the unknown. Screen-free days or parts of a day are healthy for children and adults alike."

The question of whether TV is better or worse than computers is often asked, but Maxwell says there is little difference and both should be equally monitored.

"Television is no better than devices, particularly if parents are not aware of what their child is watching," he says. "I am not an advocate of having a TV in a child's bedroom as when they watch a suitable programme in the company of other children they can have a laugh together or talk about the show. When families watch a film together they are sharing time and have the opportunity to discuss characters and themes involved - and that's a good thing.

"Parents have to remain aware of what their children watch, who they follow or subscribe to on YouTube. Emerging research into the difference between passive screens (TV, films) and interactive screens (games, texting) appear to indicate that interactive screen time is more of a draw in our brains causing fatigue and in some case irritability."


Gillian Ryan lives in Rathfarnham with her husband Kevin and two children - Amy (14) and Matthew (5). Running her own maternity wear company, stylemama.ie, she admits her kids often have too much screen time, but has plans to change.

"In our house depending on the week both children use their devices. Amy is back to school now so would chat to her friends online at night time, however this will be minimised soon as she has the Junior Cert ahead of her.

"Matthew would stay online all day looking at YouTube videos if we let him - we always make sure he is looking at stuff which is suitable for his age group but he does tend to ignore us if he has been online for too long. And if that happens, I turn it off for the evening.

"Amy is good at switching off way before bedtime and in general knows how much time she should be online, which is great. But I do feel children are choosing gaming devices over playing outside these days, which is a pity of course but it really is down to the parents to take control.

"Because I work some days from home, it can be easier to get things done if Matthew is using a device.

"I have thought that he would be better off in an after-school group so we may consider that in the future.

"There are definitely going to be some changes this year - which will include less time in front of screens and hopefully, with our encouragement, more time on study and sports - we will have to make a plan and stick to it.

"At the end of the day you can't cut them off from connecting with their friends online or watching things they enjoy but it needs to be controlled.

"I will have both my children involved in sports activities this winter so hopefully that will keep them busy."


Willo King lives in Bray with husband Stacey and children Ella (11), Edie (9) and Liam (6). She runs her own children's party company - partypacks.ie - and is very passionate about how much time children should spend online. And with the school term up and running again has enforced a technology ban on school days.

"My eldest has asked for a laptop for Christmas which I agree with as she is now in 6th class and does a lot of projects for school so a tablet just isn't enough for her.

"I also introduced her to Pinterest which she loves and we share images and quotes together.

"Edie is nine and uses the family desktop where she is addicted to Club Penguin and our youngest Liam will use any electronics he can get his hands on.

"I really believe that if I didn't monitor their time online or with gaming devices, they would be reliant on them for entertainment so I make a point of encouraging other play time such as Lego which is thankfully very popular in our house.

"The report from Dr Dunkley doesn't surprise me because I can see even with my six-year-old that if he spends too much time on electronics, his behaviour changes and then when I take it away, it normally results in a temper tantrum.

"Now that we are back to school I have introduced a rule which involves no electronics from Monday to Friday. By the time the children get home from school, do homework and have dinner, they may get half an hour of TV, but only if they have eaten all their dinner and have their homework done.

"If they don't they will spend the evening doing Lego, colouring or playing with their toys.

"Some mothers think I'm too strict but I really believe children should spend more time together using their imagination and creating games - technology has a place and a time but so does imagination."


How much is too much when it comes to electronics and children?

1 School nights may be device-free in some houses with the child making up for use at the weekend. Many children, and adults, would find that difficult to withstand so 30 minutes on school nights and longer at the weekend seems fairer and more doable.

2 Two things are really important in terms of time: One is that a child should not exceed too long in one session on a device without breaks and that parents establish how late at night a child can be on a device.

3 When screen time interferes with sleep the child's mood, learning and energy levels can be affected.

4 Technology is here to stay and parents need to guide their children towards responsible use of devices rather than hoping smart phones and tablets will go away.

- Senior child psychologist Peadar Maxwell