Juliet Rowan is a reporter for Bay of Plenty Times Weekend

Big Read: Is screen time wrecking our kids?

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Juliet Rowan examines fears (including her own) about children's increasing use of electronic devices.
Nicky Atkins is careful to monitor her 7-year-old's screen time after noticing changes in her daughter's behaviour when she watches YouTube. Photo/John Borren.
Nicky Atkins is careful to monitor her 7-year-old's screen time after noticing changes in her daughter's behaviour when she watches YouTube. Photo/John Borren.

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Oompa-Loompas sing of the perils of TV for kids.

They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they're hypnotized by it,
Until they're absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.

When Roald Dahl wrote his bestseller in 1964, there were no iPads or PCs. The only threat to young minds was the television set.

Dahl despised the "idiotic thing", punishing the character Mike Teavee for his obsessive watching and conveying his belief in TV's harmful influence in the Oompas-Loompas' impassioned song.

IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND...
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK - HE ONLY SEES!

Fast-forward half a century and Dahl's words still hold considerable power for parents fearful of the damage screen time is doing to their children.

Nowadays, though, TV seems almost benign compared to the limitless content coming at our kids through phones, tablets, laptops and school computers.

As I write this, my 7-year-old is sitting on the couch staring at god-knows-what on the iPad. He is off school sick and although we've done a deal - instead of holding the thing in his hands, he's resting it on a table to save his neck - I can hear Dahl's words echoing in my head: IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!

I resisted letting my son watch television until he was 3 but the years since have felt like an ongoing battle to know what is healthy and what is not when it comes to screen time for my children.

When I let my son play games on my phone or the iPad, I feel like I'm watching a gambler playing the pokies, such is the compulsive way he flicks his fingers across the screen and begs not to stop when I say time is up. I worry it's activating an addictive part of his brain, and sometimes I contemplate an outright ban.

Friends of mine feel similarly disturbed, including one who notices a change in her child's behaviour when she watches YouTube.

Nicky Atkins says her daughter mimics voices she hears on YouTube. Photo/John Borren
Nicky Atkins says her daughter mimics voices she hears on YouTube. Photo/John Borren

Nicky Atkins says her 7-year-old daughter mimics voices of children she hears in YouTube videos who are paid to promote products.

"They think it's the norm and I have to say that YouTube is not normal," Nicky says. "She's like, 'Yeah, it's everyday people,' and I'm like, 'No, it's because they're being paid to talk like that'."

Nicky says the line with reality is "completely blurred" and she prefers to let her daughter watch Netflix because she has more control over the content. "If she has headphones on, I've lost control of anything she's watching. If she needs to watch YouTube we will Chromecast it to the TV so I know what she's watching."

Nicky tries to limit her daughter's screen time to an hour a day but says those lines also get blurred when school requires the kids to do homework online.

I worry we have no idea how much time our children are getting on devices in the classroom and I fear my 7-year-old and 5-year-old find more joy in virtual reality than the physical world.

Nicky says she worries how screen time will impact her daughter as she gets older and was disturbed by what she saw in Screenagers, a recent Nigel Latta documentary about teenagers' online lives.

"There were six teenagers in a room and they had no conversation. They were texting each other but they weren't conversing at all. That is my problem," Nicky says.

Juliet Rowan and Nicky Atkins worry about the impacts of too much screen time on their children. Photo/John Borren
Juliet Rowan and Nicky Atkins worry about the impacts of too much screen time on their children. Photo/John Borren

The truth is, we are all grappling with the onslaught of technology in our lives, and adults as much as children struggle with the pull of electronic devices and the internet.

Media reports do nothing to allay our fears about screen exposure and the risk the online world poses to our children in the form of cyber bullying, sexual grooming and other nasties.

Now, a Government inquiry has been launched following a growing number of reports from new entrant teachers that children are arriving at school unable to speak in sentences.

Education Minister Hekia Parata told the New Zealand Herald that factors could include increased screen time and fewer parents reading to their kids. "[It's] not just not being able to speak," she said. "Not making eye contact with adults. Their whole interaction with people. It is a mix of stuff."

The Herald quoted a Nelson primary principal as saying up to 20 per cent of his new entrants each year were well below standard in their oral communication skills. Don McLean, principal of Hampden Street School, also said children were using American accents "because they'd learned to speak watching Disney Channel".

While it may seem alarming stuff, the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend has uncovered a picture that is far less bleak - and in fact quite positive when it comes to the influence of screens on kids.

Mount Maunganui Primary assistant principal Fran Allott says most of the children at her school have access to devices at home but poor oracy among new entrants is not an issue. "When they arrive at school, the majority of our kids are speaking quite clearly."

Mount Primary is a decile 9 school and Fran says that is not to say the problem does not exist at other schools, but from her experience, there is no correlation between device use and speech difficulties. Instead, she believes a range of factors come into play in children's oral language development, the first being their level of interaction with others before they start school.

"Most of the kids who come here have been to preschool and at preschool, that's where they learn a lot of communication and social skills. They learn to communicate with other kids and adults. That to me is more valid as to their speech development [than the influence of devices]."

Fran has several decades' teaching experience and says she has seen no change in the number of kids needing speech language therapy, and while she has heard children use accents - her own granddaughter has spoken with a British accent after watching the cartoon Charlie and Lola - she does not view this as an issue.

"They might mimic what they hear through videos or TV but it doesn't last. And most of the children we see here can speak in sentences. They can easily express their ideas and their feelings. They're all good at doing that."

So does she feel there are any negative impacts of device use? "I can't see it because I've got no proof but I have a hunch kids are not read to enough. So modelling of reading perhaps by parents is not done enough, and that's part of a busy life."

Fran agrees with Labour's education spokesman Chris Hipkins, who told the Herald it was difficult to make generalisations about the backgrounds of kids with poor oracy, but socio-economics, family dysfunction and having two full-time working parents likely played a role.

Says Fran: "I think parents who are working so long and so hard, they are short of time, and [in that case] stories on an iPad are better than none at all."

Merivale School principal Jan Tinetti says technology is improving low levels of oracy among her pupils. Photo/Andrew Warner
Merivale School principal Jan Tinetti says technology is improving low levels of oracy among her pupils. Photo/Andrew Warner

Tauranga's Merivale School, meanwhile, says it is harnessing the power of devices to help children develop better oral communication skills.

Merivale is a decile 1 school and Jan Tinetti, who has been principal a decade, says when the oral capabilities of its new entrants were last compared to other schools five years ago, they were at the lowest level. "It's stayed exactly the same [since] which tells me that it's more about the effects of poverty on them than anything else."

At the school, children use devices in groups rather than one-on-one, recording stories and their voices, and creating jingles for the school's radio station. "We put them on with their peers and I've seen some really positive interactions happening. How we use it is actually increasing their levels of oral language," says Jan.

Expert advice on the amount of screen time appropriate for children is hard to come by, with discussion in New Zealand tending to focus on advising parents and schools how to keep children safe online, rather than determining how many hours they spend online.

The Ministry of Health has no specific advice on the subject but says it is developing guidelines on physical activity, sedentary behaviour, screen time and sleep for under 5s as part of its Childhood Obesity Plan.

Internationally, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises no screen time for children under 2 and to limit screen time to two hours a day for older children.

But a recent report in the New York Times says the average American child already spends seven hours a day interacting with screen media, and the Academy of Pediatrics says a more nuanced message may now be appropriate.

"The AAP says media are diversifying, that quality of the media is critical, that there is much we still have to learn," Dr David Hill of the academy's Council on Communications and Media told the New York Times.

Added another academy expert: "Unstructured, unplugged playtime is very important for all children and especially very young children."

New Zealand's Netsafe says screen time can be considered harmful if a child's compulsion to stay connected means they neglect friends or withdraw from sport or other activities. "A change in behaviour may also be clues to other issues such as cyberbullying or grooming so it pays to ensure your children feel they can share problems with you," the organisation says.

Digi-parenting.co.nz, a website run by Vodafone with Netsafe and The Parenting Place, advises families to agree on family rules, like no phones at the table or no tech after 7pm to "help keep a balance between the online and offline worlds".

It also suggests setting up a digi-family agreement or downloading a digi-family contract.

Deborah Crowe advocates balancing time on screens with time in nature. Photo/John Borren
Deborah Crowe advocates balancing time on screens with time in nature. Photo/John Borren

Deborah Crowe is an engineer, tech entrepreneur, business adviser and mother of one. She is also a great lover of nature and says the issue of screen time boils down to balance and parents leading by example.

"You've got to demonstrate it yourself, the same way you demonstrate manners or anything. We sort of have this idea that we can abdicate our responsibility of it and then blame it on the devices. It's not quite like that."

Deborah has a degree in electric and electronic engineering and co-founded Run the Red, which grew to be one of the country's most successful mobile messaging companies before it was sold in 2014.

Now a business mentor in the Bay, she is also the co-founder of Way of Nature New Zealand with her husband Duncan Catanach. The pair came to live at Mount Maunganui after four years in Los Angeles, where Duncan was a trade commissioner for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise.

Way of Nature is an international movement centred on spiritual connection with nature and Deborah says nature is "a great antidote for all the screen time". Technology is here to stay, she says, so as well as disconnecting from devices during activities such as retreats, people need to develop a balanced approach to screen time in their everyday lives.

Deborah is an advocate of balancing time on devices with time outdoors, telling her 8-year-old son that if he wants 20 minutes on the iPad, he needs to go and jump on the trampoline or kick a ball for the same amount of time.

"If the parents have been on the computer all day too, then why don't they go outside with the kids. They will become present and focused and have that connection with each other and then they're more likely to be able to then have whatever conversation might be needed to be had around the computer usage."

Deborah admits to being "quite staunch" when her son was younger, not allowing him any screen time until he was 6 and only then because she considered he had reached an age when it would be educational. "I'm not against technology at all. In fact I'm a great advocate for it and I really want my son to know how to use it, but in a way that serves him - not him serving it."

The family has no TV and the general amount of screen time her boy is allowed is three times a week for 30 minutes and none before school or after dinner. Deborah has downloaded a programme on the iPad that allows her to monitor and manage his usage from her phone, and she makes an effort to sit and play "non-screen games" such as cards or Connect 4 with her son. She is also trying to learn Minecraft to show him she takes an interest in his online world.

Despite her rules, Deborah does not advocate a blanket approach to screen time for all kids, saying individuals react and interact differently with devices. Studies had shown games like Minecraft could help focus and calm kids on the autism spectrum while Pokemon Go was helping get outdoors those who might otherwise be difficult to persuade to go for a walk.

In the end, says Deborah, it is about conscious thought about screen time and parents "knowing the difference between this is supporting my kid and now my kid is becoming the Gruffalo".

Tauranga Boys' College senior school deputy principal Rob Gilbert says the benefits of technology for young people outweigh any negatives. Photo/George Novak
Tauranga Boys' College senior school deputy principal Rob Gilbert says the benefits of technology for young people outweigh any negatives. Photo/George Novak

Far from worrying about the impact of screen time, Tauranga Boys' College's Rob Gilbert says devices open up a wonderful world of information and knowledge for young people.

"Individual teachers in the classroom are no longer the sole owners of knowledge to be imparted to students," the senior school deputy principal and a BYOD (bring your own device) class teacher says. "These students can actually get knowledge and information instantaneously through technology."

Rob says while conventional teaching aids still play a part, online resources are largely replacing textbooks. "Instead of just the one textbook, kids can have access to hundreds on the subject and look at different points of views and different studies."

Technology was also a way of bringing subjects alive and allowing students to work at their own pace and feel more connected to their learning. "They can access it if they're on a school trip or if they're away playing sport for the school for a week, or sick at home in bed. That's the brilliance of it."

Talking to Rob also alleviates some of the worry parents like Nicky and I feel about technology turning our kids into non-communicative teenagers.

"Even in BYOD classes, we still have students working in groups, communicating with each other and talking like humans," he says with a laugh.

"I think there's this fear that it's 24/7 on a screen. It's way more real-world than that. And also students still use pen and paper. I would say, as an individual, I spend way more time on a computer screen than the students in my class."

Rob also has a commonsense response to my fear that devices may damage my children's posture. "I think if a student was going to be hunched over an exercise book and gripping a pencil too hard, well it's not actually any different now. The posture thing is still a parental responsibility. As teachers, we don't smack kids with rulers any longer and make them sit up straight. Blaming the devices for things like that to me seems pretty short-sighted. There's so much good with the device."

That said, he admits new challenges exist around classroom management, but says in some ways, those challenges are little different to kids passing around notes in the past. "It's just an electronic version of that really."

Also countering the fears of parents like Nicky and I (which now seem perceived rather than real after researching this article), there is another piece of heartening news:

Children are still reading books.

Issues of children's books in Tauranga have stayed relatively stable the last few years, ranging from about 750,000 to 800,000, and Jill Best, manager of the city's libraries, says the popularity of the annual summer reading programme illustrates children's enduring love of books. "No matter how many places we provide, there's always a waiting list."

Like Fran Allott and Jan Tinetti, Jill believes technology is not to blame for poor oracy or literacy in children. "It's general life stresses of poverty and work uncertainty and housing problems and all those other things that make parents more stressed and less likely to relax over a book and play or talk to their kids."

She encourages parents and preschools to bring children to the library "just to listen to stories and learn the rhythm of words and songs", saying it is all part of learning to read. And like the teachers interviewed for this story, Jill also believes technology can have positives for children in relation to reading, allowing kids who are unable to get to the library to download e-books for free.

"It's also helpful for special needs kids with language difficulties. Kids who can't talk sometimes can type for instance, and one of the other advantages is fan fiction, [including] websites and Instagram pages dedicated to Harry Potter or Warrior Clan. The kids write stories and discuss plots online. They can look up instant information."

While Jill is not against books that come with a DVD for children to listen to the story, she says nothing beats reading aloud to a child. "Then they get the role model and they hopefully get a cuddle and just generally enjoy the book with somebody so that it's a social action as well."

Roald Dahl would agree, his Oompa-Loompas singing that children deprived of TV quickly desire "something good to read".

And once they start - oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy...
And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.

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