Dr. Yousef Alhammadi on safeguarding children's screen time with innovative technology

Whilst the upside of technology can offer invaluable educational opportunities, the downside raises concerns around excessive screen time and the impact it could have on a child’s development.

Acknowledging these concerns, Dr. Yousef Alhammadi, the Executive Director of The Abu Dhabi Early Childhood Authority (ECA), sheds light on a groundbreaking approach that empowers parents to safeguard their children’s digital experiences. Emphasising the importance of striking a balance between technological exposure and real-world experiences for children in their formative years.

As the Executive Director at The Abu Dhabi Early Childhood Authority, Dr Yousef, could you discuss the importance of addressing children’s screen time and the potential impact it can have on their overall well-being?

Technology is advancing rapidly and evolving at an astonishing pace. Rather than fighting it, we must acknowledge its ubiquitous presence and find ways to leverage it and maximise its benefits, especially in the lives of young children. As parents, practitioners and policymakers, we need to find the balance which  allows our children to use it responsibly and thrive as digital citizens.

While evidence shows that excessive screen time can cause developmental delays in social-emotional and motor development, we also know that technology can be used to benefit development. Evidence shows that using the right platforms, programs or games, in the right way, can help a child develop cognitively, socially, emotionally and even physically through play-based learning that is well designed, with children and their specific developmental needs and competencies in mind.

As a government authority working in the early childhood development sector, I often hear parental concerns about screen time. ECA commissioned a study during the pandemic conducted by NYU Abu Dhabi to understand how COVID was impacting the lives of young children and their families. The study specifically showed that  screen time for children eight years and under in Abu Dhabi increased from two to three hours per day between 2020 and 2021, and we know from subsequent international studies that screen time increased globally. Such studies reveal how children’s interactions with technology and their peers and caregivers have significantly changed over the last few years. This could have enduring effects on their social-emotional development.

I believe technological advancements and changing societal norms – especially in relation to early childhood development and family interactions need to be considered in all decisions made for young children by involving them and the ecosystem which surrounds them.

How can parents strike a balance between utilising technology to protect their child’s screen time and ensuring their child’s engagement with the world around them?

As I said earlier, technology is and will always remain a key part of the world in which a child grows up today, and therefore, we must encourage them to be responsible digital citizens who are able to thrive in a world which is increasingly digital. With the advancements in artificial intelligence like generative AI that are transforming the world, we need to actively help young children develop necessary digital skills and competencies and ensure that we stay updated and learn about these technologies and what they offer.  Most importantly, we need to look at children’s time holistically and ensure they get all the inputs they need to grow and develop to their full potential.

Screen time is a part of their lives and it may be necessary to moderate the duration to ensure they spend adequate time on other developmental activities such as  exercise, offline play, school, books, time with friends and family,  quality sleep, etc.

A practical thing that parents and caregivers can do is to engage in technology use with their young children. This is especially important in early childhood as it gives the opportunity to model appropriate online behaviours such as protecting personal information and show appropriate and fun ways to use technology and when to stop.

What are some practical strategies or tools that parents can use to monitor and manage their child’s screen time effectively?

ECA has developed a ‘Child Online Protection Guide’, which provides parents with practical advice on how to encourage effective screen use among children. According to the Guide, aligned with international guidelines, recommends children aged 2-5 years should spend no more than 60 minutes of their time on a screen per day. While for children between 5-8 years, the recommended limit is 120 minutes per day. Parents and caregivers should also schedule frequent screen breaks where children are not interacting with screens for thirty minutes.

The quality of screen time is also something that parents and caregivers need to consider carefully. Commonsense.org is a resource that help parents understand what is developmentally appropriate for their children. One of the startups that we fund through our Anjal Z Techstars Founders Catalyst Program has created an app that identifies developmental and cognition issues like ADHD and Autism through games and activities. While another startup has developed an app with a personalised model for each child, irrespective of their level, culture, location or special condition to help develop their emotional and cognitive skills through playful activities based on multiple intelligences to develop 21st century skills.

There are other apps and on-screen games that require participants to undertake physical exercise, which is also highly beneficial. Thus, such active screen time options contribute to a child’s development.

In your expertise, what are some potential negative consequences of excessive screen time on a child’s cognitive and social development, and how can parents mitigate these effects?

It all depends on the type of screen time. It is a simplistic view to talk about technology only in terms of screen time or to think of it as either good or bad. As parents, it is crucial to set a good example for our children. By practising positive screen behaviors and acting as role models, we can help shape our children’s habits and behaviors.

While there are great opportunities for co-use of technology, families should also ensure that there is family time without screens, including parents. ECA’s Healthy Use of Technology Guidelines provides ample tips to parents and caregivers to ensure healthy usage limit, on the one hand, and use screens as a helpful tool to engage with the child on the other.

Are there any specific recommendations or guidelines you suggest for parents to promote healthy digital habits and responsible technology use among their children?

Young children are highly observant and adopt behaviors of their parents and caregivers. If a child observes that a device distracts their parents, it is likely that the child will mirror that behaviour.

With this in mind, there are few practical tips I can recommend to any parent or caregiver trying to set a positive example to their child. When conversing with their child, a parent should avoid interruptions or distractions from devices and maintain eye contact. This creates a strong bond and makes the child feel loved and cared for.

Many small rules can be implemented in the homes such as encouraging device-free meal times, which can enhance family bonding and promote social development. By fostering meaningful conversations and shared experiences, strong relationships can be formed and children can develop important social skills. Also, ‘no-device during meal times’ rule effectively communicates to the children that mealtimes are a significant and important part of their day.

How can parents create a supportive and open dialogue with their children about the impact of technology and set realistic boundaries?

Parents and caregivers must invest quality time to establish a strong connection, demonstrate healthy device usage and encourage their children to share their thoughts on setting boundaries. This fosters a safe environment for discussing age-appropriate hazards and healthy online practices.

It’s crucial to approach screen-based games with the same mindset as traditional toys like building blocks, puzzles, etc., as they both are essential to the learning journey. I suggest exploring entertaining games that caregivers/parents and children can enjoy together to foster a stronger relationship.

Considering the diverse range of digital devices and platforms available, what factors should parents consider when choosing age-appropriate content and applications for their children?

Parents should ask themselves, “will this technology help my child learn and grow?” before making a decision. For example, games and apps that promote imaginative or exploratory play, or a game that gives the child the opportunity to set goals or personalise their experience are great ways to engage children. These factors are important to aid positive technology interactions and maximize its advantages.

Children, Technology and Play, report serves as an excellent resource for understanding the various positive impacts that digital technologies have on children’s knowledge, creativity and skill development.

Are there any ongoing research initiatives or collaborations in the field of child development and technology that aim to provide further insights into managing screen time effectively?

Child development and technology is a growing research area within the early childhood development sector. For example, Boston Children’s Hospital’s Digital Wellness Lab, a nonprofit research institution, seeks to understand and promote positive and healthy digital media experiences for young people, from birth through young adulthood.

In her paper – Talking With Machines: Can conversational technologies serve as children’s social partners? – Ying Xu asserts that children can have ‘meaningful interactions with conversational agents by ascribing human-like traits and view them as reliable conversational partners.’ However, she acknowledges that there is still much to discover and we need to find approaches to integrate AI into a child’s current social context and relationships to promote their growth and development.

I find UNICEF’s recent report, Growing up in a connected world, to be a valuable resource that supports my belief that parents should focus on the content of children’s screen time rather than the duration. Additionally, ECA’s Healthy Use of Technology Guidelines  offers practical tips and guidance for parents and caregivers to manage screen usage and time effectively.

I believe that with proper guidance and support, children can use technology to become creators of knowledge, moving beyond their role as consumers.

It is not accurate to categorize screen time as completely positive or negative. As technology advances and becomes more integrated into our daily lives, we should welcome it while teaching our children to use it constructively and responsibly.

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