Electronic devices and their effects on children are a concern for many parents, not just those of highly sensitive children (HSC). As parents we are aware that we are raising children in the digital age. Electronic devices and gaming systems are unavoidable; they are a fact of life. But what impact are electronic devices having on our HSCs? Are they an appropriate tool to help a HSC empty their bucket when they need time out?
Does Screen Time Calm Highly Sensitive Children or Fill Their Buckets?
Television could certainly be included in a screen time list but for the purposes of this post I am talking about tablets, game systems like a Wii or Playstation, handheld gaming devices such as a Nintendo DS and mobile phone use.
HSCs need lots of down time to recover from all the stimuli that they process. Stimuli fills their buckets so it’s important to find activities that help a HSC empty their buckets again. For many, that involves an electronic device.
Some parents state that screen time soothes their child after a busy day (after school for example). Others notice that their children have meltdowns after screen time and that screens notably affect their child’s moods.
It is safe to say that the impact of screen time, like many things, is very much dependent on the individual child. One child becomes negatively immersed deeply in a game, but another can use gaming to switch off from the world around.
What Factors Can Influence the Effect That Screen Time Has?
Length of Time on a Screen
Some parents notice that screen time serves to calm a child for a certain amount of time, but thereafter begins to have a stimulating effect. How long is too long on a screen is a question only you can answer about your child.
Type of Games
From personal experience I have noticed that the effect of playing games on a device is dependent on what my sons are playing.
Minecraft is very much a bucket emptier. Lego Dimensions is an absolute bucket filler. It is all immersive and intense so I know I need to restrict the time played. FIFA football games are competitive and too much time playing has a negative impact on my middle son.
Games that race against the clock or involve winning and losing can causes frustration and ultimately a meltdown.
Time of Day
Does playing on a screen just before bedtime have a negative impact on your child’s sleep? Does playing a game on the iPad or watching YouTube videos after school relax your child?
Each child is different but it is helpful to watch for different effects at different times of the day. One child’s sleep pattern may be helped by time on the tablet before tucking them in, another’s may be severely disrupted.
What Impact Can Screen Time Have on Our Children?
I am not exaggerating when I say I have witnessed my children truly struggling with their emotions after using an electronic device. Many a time has an iPad been thrown on the floor or a Wii remote flung through the room after my sons have been asked to switch off the device or system.
The meltdowns are real.
Screen time can lead to BIG EMOTIONS.
Cognitive & Social Development
There are more questions than answers around the correlation between social and cognitive development and the use of electronic devices, particularly in pre-school children. In the same way that research indicates excessive use of the TV is detrimental for babies and toddlers, there are concerns that electronic device use has a similar effect on small children.
“Introducing technology to children at young age can have adverse effects in their personal lives, their relationships with others, and their health in the future. It can also lead children to social isolation and give rise to other serious physical and mental diseases such as, obesity, computer vision syndrome, and depression.”
Negative Effects of Technology on Children of Today
Is soothing our pre-schoolers with an iPad helping them in the long term with emotional and self regulation? Probably not.
Does excessive screen use end in social isolation and a lack of social interaction skills? Do we make it even harder for our highly sensitive children who are often introverted and find social situations tiring and difficult? Is an electronic device a tool that gives highly sensitive children permission to withdraw from social contact?
On the other hand, there are some studies that suggest there are benefits to video gaming when it comes to social skills and intelligence in older children.
As a parent it’s hard to know what to believe and to really understand what the impact is – both in the short and long term.
I visited a physiotherapist with my then seven year old as he has pain in his neck and shoulders. His discomfort was stress related but one of the first things she asked was about his use of electronic devices.
She stated that physiotherapists are seeing more and more children with issues such as “Gameboy neck” or ‘tech neck’. Children are hunched over game devices and develop physical complaints and posture issues.
Then there is the issue of children sitting around for long periods of time instead of playing outside and moving around.
There are also sleep issues. Something that many highly sensitive children already battle with at the end of a busy day.
So many children are addicted to their mobile phones or to video gaming. There are children who cannot get up for school because they have been gaming all night. Digital detox clinics have become an actual thing. This is the age we are parenting in.
I know my two youngest (8 and 6) often need help to come up with activities on a rainy day that don’t involve a screen. Their default would always be an electronic device without my influence.
How To Help Your HSC Manage Their Screen Time
What most studies do agree on is that screen use should be limited and supervised. In the same way we don’t allow our children unlimited and unmonitored access to the biscuit jar or to unhealthy snacks we shouldn’t be handing our children a device without limitations.
1. Keep a Journal
It may help to keep a journal and track the use of a device and note the impact that screen use has. Does your child have problems falling asleep after using a gaming device or tablet? Does your child have a meltdown more easily after screen time? Does the time of day when your child uses a screen impact the effect it has?
2. Have Clear Rules Around Screen Time
The hardest thing for many children is when their screen time has come to an end. Accepting that their screen time is over hits hard for some. Transition. Not something that HSCs do well.
It’s a good idea to set clear guidelines about how long a child can play on a device, and make it clear when the time is coming to an end – instead of abruptly announcing they have to stop. There are great tips in this article How to End Screen Time Without a Struggle.
A common discussion in our house is around having to stop a game when the progress cannot be saved. If the boys have not reached a certain point in a game then they cannot save the game and they lose everything they have already done. Frustrating and upset. Agreements about these type of situations help.
3. Keep an Eye on What Your Child is Playing or Watching
Monitoring what a child is doing on a tablet is a good idea to ensure it’s age appropriate. When it comes to highly sensitive children sites such as YouTube are a minefield – an innocent click on a title that seems to be child friendly can end in tears and sleepless nights.
If your aim is to give your child some bucket time then the game they are playing, or app they are using, should be consistent with this aim.
Screen time gives you peace and quiet but staying around and keeping an eye on your child’s device use is always a good idea.
4. Educating Your Child About Screen Use
Notable is that when it comes to older children there is a fine line between privacy and monitoring to safeguard your child. Educating your child on safe practices online will go a long way to protecting them.
Similarly talking to them about the negatives of excessive screen use can certainly help them regulate their own use.
Help your HSC develop calming tools that work for them that doesn’t automatically mean reaching for a screen. Or help them use a device effectively.
A trend I have noticed is that some HSCs aren’t interested in being overly immersed in things like Whats App groups. They’ll check in every so often but avoid the constant stream of messages because it’s ‘not about things that matter’. HSPs think deeply and engage in conversation that is meaningful – they are usually not great chit chatters. This may be the reason that HSCs I have come into contact with have little interest in checking into Whats App groups which generate hundreds of messages a day. Due to this, your older HSC may be prone to sensibly regulating their own online presence on social media – with a little guidance from you.
5. Limit Access
My eleven year old inherited my old mobile phone and he has set his own pin code but his access is still restricted in terms of the time he can spend on his phone playing games etc.
Other devices for my younger sons have pin codes on them so they cannot access them any time they like. For my youngest there is a time limit set on the device itself so he physically cannot continue without our input.
This works for my family – see what works for yours.
There are still lots of unknowns when it comes to children using electronic devices but they are definitely a part of our daily lives – either in school or in the home.
Like everything there is a balance – if your highly sensitive child can successfully shake off their busy school day with time on an iPad without detrimental affects then it’s certainly a tool to keep in your tool kit. If meltdowns are inevitable after screen use then find an alternative tool or take a look at the type of game being played, or film being watched.
Remembering that highly sensitive children are affected more than other children by external stimuli will serve as a good guide when it comes to electronic device use.