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SCREEN-DEMIC: The epidemic of mental illness in children and young people secondary to excessive screen time and social media usage

Featuring our special guest blog author: Dr Sanjiv Nichani OBE, Consultant Paediatrician and Founder of Healing Little Hearts Charity

Dr Sanjiv Nichani OBE, Consultant Paediatrician
Dr Sanjiv Nichani OBE, Consultant Paediatrician, University Hospitals Leicester NHS Trust

Managing kids’ screen time can feel like a constant challenge, from the moment your baby first lunges for your iPhone, to trying to get a teenager to look up from TikTok.

 

There’s plenty of advice out there, but how much of it is actually achievable, when this is just one of a million worries bouncing around your brain as a parent?

 

A friend of Schoen Clinic UK, we’re delighted to have Dr Sanjiv Nichani, Consultant Paediatrician, break it down for us into 5 practical tips for each stage of childrens’ development.


Based on research from Leicester Children’s Hospital and University Hospitals of Leicester, here are their techniques to help create a safe and healthy digital environment.


Five-a-day tips for healthier screen time


Birth to 5 years

 

It’s never too early to begin instilling healthy habits, especially as excessive screen time has been linked to difficulties in concentration, even in very young children.

 

Get your little ones off to the best start by following these 5 tips:


1. Screen time from birth to 24 months

There should be no screen time for children until they’re 18 to 24 months, except for video chatting. Try to keep your phone out of sight when you’re not FaceTiming with granny.


2. Screen time for 2 to 5 year olds

Children aged 2 to 5 should get 1 hour or less screen time per day. So, rather than just teeing up Peppa Pig on your iPad, encourage them to participate in real-life play which contributes to overall development, including motor skills and talking skills.


3. Bigger screens are better

If you think your child’s ready to play a digital game, opt for a larger screen such as a tablet or computer screen, as these cause less visual stress than a phone.


4. Avoid using a digital device to settle your child

Try to resist the temptation to hand your phone to your toddler if they start to fuss. While this may offer you short-term relief, it inhibits their ability to interact with the environment and people around them.


5. Sleep hygiene

"Sleep hygiene" is a term used for health habits and behaviours to help support a good night's sleep. Under 5's shouldn’t use a screen at least 2 hours before bedtime, to aid their natural sleep pattern. Build a calming bedtime routine which involves snuggling up for stories, rather than sitting infront of the TV.


6 - 10 year olds


For this age group, there’s a clear link between excessive social media use and issues with concentration, sleep and mental health. Studies also suggest there may be distinct physical changes in the developing brain associated with frequent social media use.

 

Here are 5 tips to help growing minds develop a healthy relationship to digital devices:


1. Waking up without screens

Try to withhold access to social media/screens for the first hour of the day. To help with this, consider if mobile phones can be charged overnight outside of the bedroom, for example, in the hallway or even better, downstairs.


2. Screen time for 6 to 10 year olds

As a general rule, recreational screen time should be kept to less than 2 hours a day and 2 hours on weekends. If you can’t stick to this all the time, don’t worry. If you’re on a long-haul flight, feel free to flex the rules for the sake of your sanity (and everyone else’s).


3. Stay active

Encourage physical activity for 1-2 hours a day. This doesn’t just mean sport: a brisk walk or a bike ride will do the trick. And if it’s outside, all the better: exercising in the fresh air should mean they fall asleep quicker and get a better night’s sleep.


4. Screen-free time together

Children will often mimic behaviours of the adults around them. Think about whether your own social media usage/phone-checking behaviour could be reduced and try to ensure there are opportunities for screen-free times, like during dinner and family activities.


5. Sleep hygiene

Screens shouldn’t be used at least 1 hour before bedtime. Ideally, phones should be kept out of the bedroom, but if not, turn vibrating and audio alerts off to avoid sleep disturbance.


11 - 17 year olds


The pre-teen and teenage years are a highly sensitive period of brain development. Studies suggest there may be distinct physical changes in the developing brain associated with frequent social media use, and it’s been linked to difficulties with concentration, sleep and mental health.

 

You’ll need to pick your battles when it comes to your teenager and their device(s).


Follow these 5 tips to help keep their screen time under control:


1. Waking up without screens

Get them used to starting their day without their phone; a separate alarm clock is a smart investment. Encourage them to go through their morning routine before checking their socials (and see if you can do the same).


2. Screen time

Try to keep recreational screen time to 2 hours a day on weekdays and 2-3 hours on weekends. Treat it as a privilege, one which can be earned by doing their homework and chores first.


3. Stay active

Encourage physical activity for at least 1 hour per day. If they’re sporty and getting stuck in at school, it shouldn’t be hard to achieve. If they don’t enjoy PE, help them find the fun in exercise. Try different activities to see what sticks, from kitchen discos to walking the dog.


4. Screen-free time together

Try to create screen-free times at certain points in your weekly routine, getting teenagers used to the concept that dinner time or the Sunday walk is a no-phone zone.


5. Sleep hygiene

Try to get your teen to put away their devices at least 1 hour before bedtime. If (when) you find they are staring at a screen just before bed, check it’s not violent or frightening content, and that the screen brightness is turned down.


Our special thanks to Dr Nichani for permitting us to use this helpful article to raise awareness of the effects of too much screen time, aiding healthier lives and better mental health for children and parents everywhere.


Please note, Dr Nichani does not work at Schoen Clinic, if you wish to see him privately, you can read more here.



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