Why occupational therapists suggest strategies to switch off the screens

Written by: Beth Beaumont, Occupational Therapist, Change for Life.

Children love exploring the world around them using their fingers, and occupational therapy is aimed at helping children regulating their movement.  If it’s to climb a tree, swing a bat, finger paint a piece of art or dress and feed themselves, children rely on their fingers to interact and participate in many tasks of everyday life unless they are delayed in skills as occupational therapy can assess.  One concern that paediatric occupational therapists have highlighted in recent times is the challenge some children are facing in developing finger dexterity, strength and fine-motor control.  Much of this concern has been related to the amount of time spent in technology-based activities instead participating in play.  According to occupational therapists, this shift in engagement is slowly but surely changing the way we use our hands to offer less functional freedom. Whilst iPads, iPhones and tv offer major advantages in building opportunities for brain training, socialisation, and managing children’s interest, over-use, or excessive participation in these screen-based activities can have some negative outcomes for children.  These result in poor hand function, wrist strength, and finger movement and occupational therapy can improve this.  The Australian Physical Activity Recommendation suggest that children under five spend no more than 60 minutes in front of screens, and children under two should not be exposed at all.  So, what are mum and dad to do?

Below are some tips that may assist parents in reducing a child’s time spent in front of the screens and assist with activities that improve their visual motor coordination.   One strategy is to set up a screen free activity.  Most children will happily divert their attention to an indoor or outdoor activity that offers the opportunity to explore, imagine, and have fun using their hands.  Activity options could look like decorating rocks, making cakes in the backyard with mud, or inside with playdough, creating jewellery with (uncooked) pasta, or building Lego.  Parents could also use a timer or discuss how to increase a child’s attention especially for hyperactivity and inattention.  Set a timer for 20-30 minutes for screen use occasions and let the child know this is the amount of time they have to spend in front of the screen.  This will reduce anger or challenging behavioural responses.  After all, who wants to fight with a timer?  It will also offer a visual indication of time spent in the activity and allow you time to yourself.

As an occupational therapist we suggest parents help demonstrate to children what responsible use of screen time looks like. It is important to be the change you want to see in your children.  If you demonstrate less care, desire and interest in using tv or iPads your children will follow.  Spend this time in a joint activity together instead, maybe a favourite board game or charades or practice activities an occupational therapist can suggest.

 It is also important to keep the expectations consistent.  Whilst this choice to replace screens with finger-friendly activities may be easy for some, it may also be a challenge for others. Be consistent in your approach, allow some engagement, but know when enough is enough and stand by this.  At first, it may bring on some tantrums, but over time this will only benefit children as many studies show.  Consider removing all technology from sight and at night.  Whilst the use of screens offer entertainment, and sometimes let us win the fight for bed time, it is no secret that screens stimulate our minds.  This is the last thing we want at night, especially if screen time is being used as a treat to help bring on sleep.  Remove all technology from children 1-2 hours before bed time.  Use that time to read with your children or encourage them to build independence through mastering their own bed-time routine without the use of excessive screen time.  Trial these strategies and incorporate them into your daily routines to increase more opportunities for your child’s mind and body development long term.  If your child has difficulties with self-regulation, hyperactivity, poor concentration, and visual motor skills, see an occupational therapist for support and help build their confidence and learning skills.