20:04 GMT19 April 2021
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    Throughout the pandemic, many "work from home" parents have employed a common babysitter, the "screen". Be it the iPad, the phone, or the TV, many children have been getting far more sedentary time than in "normal" life.

    We spoke with Meghan Owens, author of the book "Spoiled Right: Delaying Screens and Giving Children What They Really Need", about how to reverse this reliance on screens.

    Sputnik: What steps can we take to wean a child off of the screen?

    Meghan Owens: I suggest that we use a positive or dare I say, a joyful approach, to helping children wean off of a pandemic-induced screen habit. There are activities of childhood that are inversely related with screen time, that means as screen time goes up, these things go down. And these are the things that have always been really good for kids. So, if we increase the amount of time children are spending doing these activities, then their screen time should decrease incidentally. So, maybe without so much of a power struggle that often accompanies those screen time battles.

    I recently wrote a book and the five activities, I use an acronym just to help the tired parents: "SPOIL".

    I recommend you SPOIL your child, and with these five activities, as time in them goes up, screen time goes down.

    The "S" stands for Social time. "P" stands for Play. "O" stands for Outdoor. "I" stands for Independent work like chores, and "L" stands for Literacy.

    Sputnik: Basically, you are cultivating a fulfilling daily schedule, of which the by-product is reduced screen time. Is there research to back this method?

    Meghan Owens: There is research to show that focusing on positive goals, rather than negative goals, is beneficial. Negative goals are: I want to avoid something, whereas positive goals are: I want to do more of something, or I want to move towards something. There is research to show that when families are given positive goals, they're more successful in their endeavours. They also have more positive affect when they're talking about the goals, and they're more likely to persist in the goals. So, if we focus on increasing time spent in these positive activities, it might be a little less exhausting for us, and we might be more successful than focusing on a negative goal, which might be the implementation of time limits, etc.

    Sputnik: When it comes to screen use, is it the screens themselves that are addictive? Or is it the content that children are pulled towards?

    Meghan Owens: I do think that often for children, screens, whether it is applications, games, or programmes, they are often persuasively designed, with a goal of increasing time spent on the device. The designers are really smart about intermittent behavioural rewards and tunnelling, so that the child will want to keep playing their game, and not go to a competitor's game. And the result is that we develop these habits, and it can feel hard to turn things off, or we feel compelled to check things. But I do think that for kids, it's almost a distraction from the real issue. There seems to be a constant wrestle: screens are bad/ screens are okay/ it depends on the content, etc. You kind of get this whiplash hearing about it.

    But we know for sure that for a child spending time reading, or spending time outdoors, there is decades of research to show how good these activities are for children, and what strong associations they have with physical and mental health.

    Therefore, even if screens were neutral, if they're decreasing the amount of time your child is spending outdoors, or they're decreasing the amount of time your child has spent reading, then they're no longer neutral, because we're losing time in these activities. If we can focus on these, then we can maybe have less whiplash about trying to figure out whether the screen is "Good" or "Bad".

    Sputnik: What does the future of education look like? Will Screens be a permanent fixture in our classrooms from now on?

    Meghan Owens: So that's a really great question, and one that I'm not sure we have the answer to yet in terms of how educational screen time might be impacting children. I think we need to think really carefully about whether the screen time is useful in the school-based setting. So, it would likely be better to give kids a physical book if we can. During the pandemic, it was great to have reading platforms that allowed children to read without physical books, and the whole class could read the same book because they were reading it online. For young kids, if we can give them physical books, once we've returned to school that would be superior. So, what we have to think about in terms of educational screen time is: Are we using it because it's flashy and exciting? Are we using it because it really provides something above and beyond what we can do analogue, without the screen? Those are the questions we need to figure out.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

    research, Children, psychology, Science, COVID-19
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