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Image / Self / Parenthood

Screen time has exploded in our household during lockdown. How worried should I be?


How much is too much screen time, especially in a pandemic? Amanda Cassidy speaks to neuro-developmental therapist, Ollywen Moran.


Ollwyn Moran lives in Templeogue, Dublin with her two teenage sons Matthew and Alex. She recently set up a brand called Cognikids that produces award-winning patented products to support infant development.

She’s also appeared on the Virgin Media show Eating with the Enemy where she defends the importance of monitoring screen time for children. We caught up with her with some questions about when it comes to allowing extra screen time during the pandemic.

“Screen time is such a sensitive topic, particularly during a lockdown. We are all doing what we can to get through this and to get our children through this too. So what works for your family is key. It is important that you are aware of the pitfalls or potential impacts that screen time exposure has on children and then you can make an informed decision as to how best to implement it in your house.”

Research has emerged indicating changes in the brains of children who spend a lot of time using screened devices. And while some of this research can be contradictory and overwhelming to digest, as parents, the point is that we maybe should exercise caution and moderation to limit any negative impacts of screen usage on the young developing brain.

Currently, the digital landscape is evolving at a more rapid pace than research itself that is required to conclusively demonstrate the effects that screens, devices, and digital use by children is having on the development, learning, and family life of children.

“It is important to recognise that a child’s earliest screen encounters can be formative and early overexposure to screen use increases the likelihood of overuse later in life,” explains Ollywen. “In fact, too much screen time too soon will actually impede the development of the abilities of infants and young children in particular.

The ability to focus and concentrate, to read and sense other people’s attitudes, and even to build a large vocabulary can all be harmed by too much screen time.

Ollwyn says that research carried out in Toronto has identified that the more handheld screen time a child’s parent reported, the more likely the child was to have delays in expressive speech by the age of 24 months.

“The growth and development that the brain goes through in the first three years of life is exponential and hugely critical. At this time our brains are particularly sensitive to the environment around us. And it is during this time that the foundations for all other brain functions are built. The feedback from digital devices do not provide the most important stimuli for the brain.”

Flashing images

“In fact, the flashing images, noises, immediate rewards at a swipe or touch are exactly what young brains do not need producing chemical responses that are akin to drug use in adults. It is during these screen and digital device engagements that the brain releases dopamine, which is a component of our reward system that brings a feeling of pleasure. Dopamine hits can become addictive.”

There has also been significant research carried out on older children (10yrs+) around the dopamine release they receive from playing online games such as Fortnite.

“During these games, the same addictive centers of the brain are stimulated for a drug addict taking a hit,” says Ollywen. “Most worrying for parents is whether we might be unwittingly allowing our children to be hardwired for addiction later in life.”

Other research worth noting is that carried out by The National Institute of Health study in the USA which showed that nine and ten-year-old kids spending more than seven hours a day using screened devices show signs of premature thinning of the cortex, the brain’s outermost layer that processes sensory information. The long-term impact of this is not yet known.

“In terms of a child’s social development it is the frontal lobe that is the key early player here, and its most crucial stage of development is in the first three years of life. The most important requirement to support the proper development of your child’s frontal lobe is authentic human interaction.

We can’t really beat ourselves up too much about this. It is just where we are at this point in time. The most important thing is that we help our children navigate this as best we can

There is evidence that vision is also impacted by the significant use of screened devices. Doctors report a large rise in Myopia (nearsighted) children and the requirement for corrective glasses, over the last number of years.

Our children’s peripheral vision is suffering too. That is the vision from the side, the type of vision we need for sports, walking, driving, and generally being aware of our surrounding environments.

Good night’s sleep

The amount of time spent on screened devices before bed is linked to sleep problems and the presence of any electronic device in a bedroom is associated with less sleep per night, in part to the melatonin suppression.

“Melatonin is a hormone that is released by the pineal gland in the brain and its function is to regulate your sleep and wake cycle. A good night’s sleep with proper sleep cycles to allow the brain and body to recharge is crucial for a child’s growth and development, not to mention performance in school.”

So can we as parents let ourselves off the hook a bit for turning on the devices more during a pandemic or are we just creating bigger problems for ourselves long-term?

“So here’s the thing, right at this moment in time screen time is a very important tool for kids and parents. In fact, all of us have increased our screen usage, we can’t help it. And with school learning going online for the foreseeable future it is a necessity. So we can’t really beat ourselves up too much about this. It is just where we are at this point in time. The most important thing is that we help our children navigate this as best we can.

I think with the pandemic and associated lockdowns and lifestyle restrictions, there are a number of very valid reasons for the increase in screen use. For older children, it can be a method of staying connected with friends and family via zoom calls or FaceTime or even a way to share some playtime through various games.

Undoubtedly your child will also be feeling the stresses and strains of the pandemic, the changes to their day-to-day life are significant and they may also be picking up on any additional worries that are within the household too. The priority is to try to help your child navigate this time in our lives and come out the other side as resilient as possible. While for little ones, parents may need the distraction of screens to allow them to take a work call, write an email or just get the dinner prepped.

However a word of caution must accompany this, all of the negative impacts of too much screen use that we now know can harm our children’s overall health need to be factored into your decision on how to use screen time throughout the pandemic.

If your child is having schooling online, they will then need to have a balance to that, which offers their brain a chance to ‘decompress’ and ‘unwind’ and not be ‘overstimulated’. They will need time outdoors, no matter what the weather is like!

Wrap up warm and suggest age-appropriate activities – whether it is walking the dog, doing some physical sports training together, bringing them for an adventure walk in the park, gardening, helping to plant some spring bulbs, or going for a bike or scooter ride….the possibilities are endless. But it is so important.

A child’s nervous system can be quickly over-stimulated by screen use and so it really needs a chance to chill out and calm down after any prolonged periods on screens, even if’s schoolwork.”

So, should families consider a screen-free day over a weekend?

“It is a great approach to screen-free time once used positively to spend family time together and to get out of the house and go for long walks. It provides free time for families to engage with their children, learn new skills like cooking a new recipe together or spend some time chilling out together reading books.

With this approach to screen time, it gets the parents involved also, which is a good way of leading by example. In fact, many parents report that they really enjoy the day where they consciously switch off from their own devices and unplug from the digital world.

Of course, this screen-free day approach would also need to be accompanied by a mindful approach to screen time every other day of the week too! A particular focus on certain times of the day that are also deemed screen-free is important. For example, key touchpoint times in the day when you try to connect as a family and build your relationship, like mealtimes. Another example is the hour before bed time, try to designate this hour to family board games, listening to music or reading in the same room as each other.”

What about families looking to gently reduce their screen time?

Here are my tips for families trying to reduce their screen time:

  • Less than 2yrs screen time is not recommended
  • 2-5yrs limit to 1 hour per day
  • Ensure that sedentary screen time is not part of child care
  • Maintain screen-free times throughout the day – protect certain activities such as mealtimes from screen invasion
  • Avoid screens an hour before bed
  • Don’t be afraid to let your child be ‘bored’….this will actually be very beneficial for them
  • Allow them to become creative and give them some thinking time. Children need this too. They do not have to be entertained all the time.
  • When screens in use are present whenever possible so you are aware of what content is being consumed and make sure it is age-appropriate.
  • Use parenting techniques that help teach self-regulation, calming, limit-setting and building resilience.
  • Choose healthy alternatives …. Outdoors, family games, hands-on activities, reading, etc.
  • For little ones under 5, it is important to turn off screens when not in use to avoid having background tv interference.
  • Establish clear boundaries with your child around permitted times for use – for little ones, use a visual cue or an alarm on your phone to help them understand when time is up.
  • When turning off screens try to have an appealing transition activity.
  • Boys in particular, are more susceptible to hormonal build-ups during screen time and having an activity that helps their nervous system to calm down is critical.
  • Stick to your guns – you need to establish and enforce your boundaries.

Ollwyn features in episode two of the new Virgin Media series – Eating with the Enemy. Ollwyn’s episode is now available to view on the Virgin Media Player and will air next Wednesday 10th March on Virgin Media One.