/ 6 June 2024

Scrolling into trouble: Screens alone are not good enough teachers

Learning To Spell
Screens have their uses and time on them should be limited because children learn best from interacting with a person and using all their senses. (Getty Images)

Humans, particularly children under the age of five, learn best when using their different senses, not just their eyes and ears. When children spend their time staring at a digital screen, they don’t have the opportunity to use other faculties or interact with those around them. 

I was reminded of this when I read an article published in BusinessTech, which found that the average South African spends more than half of their daily waking hours looking at a screen; that’s just over nine hours a day. The methodology of the study aside, we know that smartphones are more and more integrated into our daily routines. South Africa has a high penetration rate for smartphones — 92% in 2022. Many of us get our news, information, emails, messages and entertainment from a single device — our cell phones.

But parents must be cautious about introducing screen time to their children too early and in high doses. Not only does it interrupt cognitively stimulating interactions between you and the children in your care, it also doesn’t engage the child’s senses in the same way that playing and reading do. These simple, loving connections between child and caregiver are important for early development.

In 2019, at a press conference for the release of the World Health Organisation’s first-ever guidelines on physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep for children under the age of five, World Health Organisation director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “Achieving health for all means doing what is best for health right from the beginning of people’s lives.” These guidelines provide recommendations on the amount of time in a 24-hour day that young children under five should spend being physically active or sleeping for their health and wellbeing, and the maximum recommended time these children should spend on screen-based activities whilst sitting down or inactive. 

The guidelines stipulate that screen time is not recommended for children younger than 12 months. Instead, they should be reading and storytelling with a caregiver while sitting or inactive. For children between 12 and 24 months, screen time (such as watching TV and videos or playing computer games) is not recommended. For those aged two years, sedentary screen time should be no more than an hour, but less is better. Again, when inactive, reading and storytelling with a caregiver is encouraged. The same goes for children aged three to four years.

If good habits like physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep patterns are established early in life, they help shape habits into childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Patricia Kuhl, a scientist focusing on experiments using brain scans with more than 4 000 babies, says that young infants learn best from a person when compared to a machine or screen.  Similarly, the Harvard Centre for the Developing Child posits a technique called serve-and-return, which requires a caregiver to be attentive to the child’s lead and encourage curiosity in a cyclic manner — a to-and-fro interaction between caregiver and child, something a screen simply cannot do. 

I am not bashing technology, nor do I feel that it has no role in helping children get healthy entertainment and opportunities to learn. In my work, I interact with and support many organisations that use digital applications to reach beneficiaries that they otherwise would not have. 

Parents are a child’s first teacher. Parents become more concerned with how their child learns and their overall learning journey — this is associated with positive outcomes for the child. As a parent, do not allow a screen to usurp you. Be intentional about controlling your child’s screen time.

Develop a screen plan for your child. Explore ways to increase your child’s curiosity and stimulate more faculties than just their sight and hearing.  Remember that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work with children of different ages. 

Consider applying the same rules to your child’s real and virtual environments. In both, play with your child, model kind behaviour, be involved and know your child’s friends and what your child does with them. 

Kwanda Ndoda is a new father, and a civil engineer turned development practitioner working at the DG Murray Trust as an innovation manager. His work focuses on the well-being of children in economically fragile and socially marginalised communities.