Last updated on Jun 21st, 2021 at 12:18 pm

We’re into the second year of the pandemic, facing the winter months ahead and worrying about a possible COVID third wave.

For parenting and childhood development experts, the global crisis has provoked deep concerns about the multiple impacts on our children, one of which is how indoor confinement has led to the inevitable increase in screen time.

In many ways, our screens have been our friends. They’ve enabled us to work remotely and provided educational continuity for our school-aged and student kids. They’ve provided much-needed entertainment when so few leisure options have been available.

Most importantly, screens have given us a lifeline by enabling us to keep in touch with our loved ones and friends. However, despite these benefits, the adverse impacts of screen time on health and well-being, especially on early child development, remain a cause for concern and have triggered a greater need for physical activity and play.

Alarming stats about increased screen time during lockdown

Numerous international studies undertaken during the initial global lockdown in 2020 have revealed alarming stats about increased screen time and related health concerns.

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One US study of 3000 parents found that screen time for their kids had increased by 500%, while another study published in Jama Ophthalmology reported the prevalence of short-sightedness in children from too much screen use.

Closer to home, an  SA study conducted last year found that parents in both urban and rural settings exceeded the global and national guidelines for screen time, and the majority of the respondents didn’t think screen time could impact negatively on their little ones.

Two kids sitting on sofa with tablet. Real life, diversity, digital technology
Copyright: happylife2016

Negative effects of screen time

According to Occupational Therapist, Tracey Stockdale, a lot of parents simply lack the knowledge of how screen time can negatively affect their child’s development and milestones. “I also find that some parents do not know how to play with their children and so it’s much easier to allow the child to engage in screen time,” says Stockdale.

South Africa’s national guidelines for children and screen time are aligned to the World Health Organisation’s guidelines. In a nutshell, screen time is not recommended for infants under one year, while children from two to five years of age should not experience more than one hour of screen time a day.

Covid has wreaked havoc on physical play and sensory development

Of course, COVID has caused havoc when it comes to making sure toddlers are getting all-round stimulation. Some playschools are yet to re-open, and many parents have limited social interactions to keep the family safe.

However, increasing toddler screen time is not a solution. Leanne Gordon-Myers, CEO of Pollywiggles, a local toy distributor specialising in educational toys that focus on developmental play and stimulation, says that more practical and physical alternatives to screen time are needed. Pre-schoolers should have a bare minimum of three hours of physical activity spread across the day, with at least 60 minutes of movement that is moderate to vigorous.

“We have no idea how long this pandemic will last, so parents need to get creative in getting their kids moving. Think blanket forts, dance fun, indoor obstacle courses, and toys that promote physical activity, says Gordon-Myers.

Cute little children in blanket fort at home
Copyright: serezniy

Indoor play

As a solution to the indoor dilemma parents face during COVID, the toy distributor has bought in a compact light-weight indoor play gym that can be assembled for indoor play, and then easily folded and stored after use. ‘The Lil’ Monkey toddler gym’ not only keeps kids busy indoors, but it builds strength and offers all the sensory stimulation required to improve gross and fine motor skills, which is so important during those critical years of ages 1-5 years,” says Gordon-Myers.

According to Stockdale, climbing toys like the Lil Monkey toddler gym are great for sensory input to a toddler’s muscles and joints, which builds the motor skills needed for eventual classroom abilities such as holding a pencil and handwriting. By being encouraged to use both sides of the body, play gyms also assist with the physical competence to ride a bike or use scissors.

Lil Monkey toddler gyms are great for sensory input to a toddler’s muscles and joints

Long-term impacts of Covid and increased screen use on childhood development

Stockdale is one of many in the childhood well-being community that believe the increase in screen use and time spent indoors during lockdown could harm a child’s development long-term.  A child’s brain needs to be fed sensory-rich experiences to learn, which is important for learning appropriate social and emotional responses and language development.

“Covid has raised some interesting concerns and debates, such as how the mask-wearing of caregivers can reduce an infant’s ability to learn social cues, and how lack of active play hinders motor skills development. We can’t rule out the possible implications the lockdown will have on children’s development.”

“They could be at risk for learning difficulties, have a harder time dealing with their emotions, and could develop behaviour problems both at home and at school. Delayed language abilities and poor motor planning skills are also a concern. It’s hard to say right now what the long-term consequences are as more research will need to be done, but parents should consider how they can keep their children moving, especially now as we approach winter and a possible third COVID wave.”

 

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