Stock child screen tablet computer
5 tested tips to break your child's screen addiction Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: Let’s face it – it’s impossible to keep children away from screens and gadgets. It’s no news that screens can harm your little one’s eyesight and reduce his or her social interaction. Yet, sometimes you tend to succumb (in that one weak moment loaded with parental guilt) and hand over the screen to your child just to keep them occupied.

With animated movies and cartoon series being available on every animated platform, and content creators targeting child audiences with gameplay videos, toy reviews and a lot more, it’s hard to keep children away from their screens.

My nine-year-old’s “mummy five more minutes, please,” sounded so harmless that I had started yielding to it. But, soon it started becoming an everyday habit. Any instruction to put his tablet away would result in five minutes of pleading for more screen time daily, until I decided to put a stop to it. Was I allowing my child to get addicted to screens after putting in quite a lot of effort to keep his screen time under check so far?

And, if all this screen time is not enough, he also needs a tablet for school use. As a millennial parent, even though I do understand the need for digital education for children, it irritates me that this just means more screen time at school too.

Apparently, scientific studies show that screen addiction can lead to depression, anxiety, stress, worse educational results, self-harm, and poor sleep among children.

Experts say that social withdrawal, restlessness, or irritability when unable to use the device are just some signs to watch out for in your child.

A previous Gulf News article explains, that the frontal cortex of our brain is known to be involved in activities such as organisation, problem solving etc. When we use the digital media that activity helps release excessive dopamine, serotonin which induce the pleasure feelings. However overuse of the frontal cortex causes excessive release of these hormones which in turn causes agitation and aggression. Besides inducing aggression, electronic media that is heavily dependent on visuals also kills imagination and creativity in a child.

We spoke to five UAE parents to find out their tested tips to discourage screen addiction in their children.

1) Be assertive and explain the ill effects

“When children enjoy an activity like playing or watching something, they are bound to push for more time. But, it is our responsibility as parents to put our foot down and discipline them," said Maggie M, a Sharjah-based mum. "During COVID-19, I noticed that I was allowing more screen time to my then 10-year-old daughter. His brother who was just two was also getting addicted. They needed screens all the time, while going to bed, while having food and even during shopping trips. Finally, my husband and I decided that we needed to put a stop to this. When they push for more screen time, we started saying no. Screens and phones had to be kept away while eating food, before bed, and outdoors," the Indian expat mum added, saying that two years later, both her children seem to be engaging more and use their devices for limited time.

2) Out of sight, out of mind

“My approach was to hide the tablet and phone. I kept it hidden for 30 days during our [summer] break. It was all good, they didn’t even go next to the phone or tablet after that. You lose interest automatically. I replaced the gadgets with ‘The adventures of Tintin’, which I bought from a second-hand store in Mumbai. I visit bookstores a lot, and pick up books from the airport when travelling. Now, I see them pick up books more easily. I got a bookshelf and let them arrange it, they get interested, too, and want to keep adding to it,” said Pamela Nazareth, a Dubai-based Indian mum of two sons, seven-year-old Jordan and four-year-old Nathan.

3) Set an example

Dubai-based mum Vidhi Sharma’s solution was that she stopped using her phone in front of her son. Scientific research agrees with her solution. A 2014 study reveals that parents who are on their phones — whether checking email or texting — in front of their children have more negative interactions with them. The study developed by researcher Dr Jenny Radesky for Boston Medical Center revolved around surreptitiously observing families at fast-food restaurants. The undercover observers recorded the behaviour of both adults and children in 55 groupings. Although not a scientific experiment, anecdotal findings showed that out of 55 parents, 40 of them used a mobile device and many, she notes, were more absorbed in it than in their family. The problem here? According to Radesky: "They (children) learn language, they learn about their own emotions, they learn how to regulate them, by watching us. They learn how to have a conversation, how to read other people's facial expressions. And if that's not happening, children are missing out on important development milestones."

The Indian mum, Sharma, added: “I enrolled my eight-year-old in extracurricular activities and encourage him and his four-year-old sister to play outdoors whenever the weather permits.”

4) Ditch screens and engage

Dubai-based Pakistani dad Tariq Rasheed said: “I get my child to stay away from mobiles and tablets by engaging with him. I take him outdoors or play indoors with him.”

It is important to take the time out for bonding activities with children. Playing board games or engaging your child in activities like cleaning, cooking or gardening will keep them away from smartphones. Encourage your child to pursue hobbies such as listening to music, playing an instrument, reading, or painting. Spend your weekends doing fun family activities like swimming and playing games. When you take them out shopping, get them to help to keep them engaged.

5) Don’t use screens as rewards

Dubai mum Annalisa Perego, an Italian expatriate, said: “I make it a point not to give my nine-year-old daughter extra tablet time as reward for good behaviour or school marks.” A reward by nature is something to want. So when you offer screen time in this way, you communicate that screen time is something to covet. Since most apps and use of devices cause dopamine to be released in the brain, they are highly addictive and we don’t need to further elevate their status in the minds of our children. In a 2019 Canadian University of Guelph study, researchers found children whose parents dole out screen time as a reward or revoke it as punishment spend more time on a smartphone, tablet or computer or in front of the television than children whose parents don’t.