People who were born from 1985 onwards belong to the millennial generation*, considered “digital native”, in other words: children who were born surrounded by various technology, including the use of screens. Television and video games were the technology used by children and young people throughout the 1980s and the 1990s and they had a lot of influence in countries such as Brazil, England, Germany and the United States.

Millennials are already in the job market, raising families and experiencing parenthood. It’s a generation that really values technology, after all, they grew up in the midst of it. An example of this is that, according to the Mindminners website, having a smartphone is as important to this generation as having a healthcare plan.

What about the children of millennials, how do they fit into all of this? How can children live amongst screens and gadgets in a healthy way? 

Book, story, educational, game and music video apps are quite popular on phone and tablet screens of parents of children from 2 to 8 years old. Most of the kids already know how to use it and will ask for the device, since they see their parents using it. At this age, it’s recommended to prioritize the time with the child without using such tools, since the child wants to play with someone. If the parents’ attention is on the child, his or her craving for spending time with screens will be much smaller. 

It’s worth remembering that the keyword is flexibility. As the child grows, the desire to play online will also grow. The “rules” should always be reevaluated and reflected on by the parents from time to time and analyzed whether they are still valid and effective for the child. 

Nowadays, letting children over the age of 2 have contact with smartphones and tablets is almost inevitable and, because of that, prohibiting it is not the solution: the child will want it even more. Balance is always welcome: to suggest, participate and prioritize playing offline and without screens, but not to prohibit the full use of screens. 

Marianna Nolasco, age 33, is mother of Laila, age 8. Laila won an old iPad from her parents at the age of 2. Back then, Marianna didn’t feel the need to limit screen use time, since Laila would split her time evenly between playing games, the iPad and her stuffed animals. The iPad had a lot of game apps and educational videos. 

Today, Laila inherited her mother’s old phone, but she doesn’t use it much as it is outdated. She prefers to use her parents’ phone to play, despite having an iPad all to herself. Her favorite game is Minecraft. Marianna says that the last few months have been a struggle, since Laila wants to spend most of her free time with the game. 

Because of that, Marianna has limited the screen use time: now, Laila can only play for two hours a day (one in the morning and one at night). In addition to Minecraft, Laila really enjoys playing Love Balls along with her mother, which has become a pastime activity to them. 

Risks

According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, screen exposure (of any kind: television, computer, cellphones, tablets) negatively affects the language, attention, cognitive development, task performance, short-term memory, reading and math on children under the age of five. With respect to children under two years old, some difficulty in distinguishing what is reality and what happens on screen was perceived. 

Also, children exposed in excess to screens, in other words, more than two hours a day, exhibit aggressive and antisocial behavior, usually because parents are more inclined to use technology as a “pacifier” to children with “challenging” behavior. 

When it comes to physical health, children who spend a lot of time in front of screens daily have a bigger risk of becoming sedentary and overweight. When apps have no parental control, children are exposed to fast food advertisements, for example, that encourage them to eat “snacks” any time and stimulate this feeding pattern, in addition to their spending more time sitting or lying down exposed to screens when they could instead be practicing activities that demand a minimum of physical exercise. 

This type of advertising usually targets children from 2 to 6 years old. Sleeping problems are also associated with screen exposure: using devices with glowing screens — that contain blue light — before sleep causes the suppression of melatonin, the sleep hormone. To mitigate this problem, many devices and apps contain the blue light control tool, that diminishes the device screen glow and minimizes sleeplessness effects. 

Benefits 

The potential benefits to children’s development happen from two years old onwards, when they are exposed to content, language, time and design appropriate to this phase. Quality programs and apps promote positive aspects on the cognitive development, imagination, and language (learning new words) and help with the literacy process. It’s worth remembering that the benefits are only possible when screen exposure is done responsibly, accompanied by and without replacing the affection and presence of parents and relatives. 

In relation to physical health, it’s very hard to claim that the use of screens is beneficial to children. Only if children use apps related to a physical activity, like yoga or dancing, in which the users need to move, will they have some benefit. 

This benefit can be found in games such as Just Dance by Nintendo Wii, and Labo, a cardboard accessory for Nintendo Switch that allows the user to put together tools to interact with games, like an armor, for instance. 

Recommendations 

To minimize the negative effects, the Canadian Paediatric Society suggests that children always be accompanied by their parents or other relatives during this type of activity. 

To prioritize educational apps and in which the child uses creativity and there is interactivity involved, to respect the rating and to avoid content with advertising are also important suggestions. 

Choosing along with the child what will be watched is also effective (“let’s watch this, at this moment, for this reason”). Limiting the use of smartphones in public spaces, during family routines and during mealtimes is a good habit to increase and encourage interaction between family and friends, and to get the child to distinguish from an early age what is and what isn’t reality. 

With respect to the choice of what to consume, it is recommended to choose quality content and which doesn’t expose the child to advertising. In case there is exposition, help the child to recognize and question the advertisements, stereotypes and other questionable content. 

In relation to content, pay attention to some items such as body image, violence, social problems, diversity and gender. 

Due to sleep quality, it is recommended that the child have no kind of electronic device in his or her bedroom and that he or she avoid using screen devices for at least an hour before bedtime. 

The use of screens by children under 2 years old is not recommended. 

For children between 2 and 5 years old it is recommended the use of one hour a day at most and it shouldn’t be part of children’s routines. 

Parents should also police themselves in the use of cellphones. Children follow examples and if the parents spend too much time behind screens, children will also want that. To enjoy family moments and respect mealtimes without the use of screens is fundamental for the child to have good habits when it comes to all technology.