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Screen time message taken seriously in China

By Barry He | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-05-02 21:32
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Two sisters sit on the couch as they watch the laptop screen. [Photo/IC]

Seeing children with large smartphones has become a staple of our culture, and it is not unusual nowadays even to see toddlers fixated on glowing screens that are similar in size to their own heads.

Electronic devices are a subject of contentious parenting debates, not in the least when it comes to young children. Many parents find ease in turning the TV on and allowing cartoons to pacify their little ones, but, year-by-year it seems that children are exposed to the bright lights of tablets and smartphones at increasingly young ages.

The sight of a toddler's eyes fixated on a glaring bright screen held inches from his or her face has fueled international anxiety among parents, not in the least in China, where screen time addiction among children and young adults is a growing government concern.

New research produced this year indicates that it may not be just the fact that screens strain young children's eye muscles, the bright lights could also be a problem, affecting their circadian rhythm, which is the bodily function that regulates a child's sleep pattern in response to light levels. Some scientists now believe that the way bright screens interfere with the circadian rhythm of children means that normal growth in the child's eye is disrupted, leading to short-sightedness and other issues further down the line.

The World Health Organization, in response to this issue, has announced its first-ever screen time guidelines for young children, and set out how much time they should be allowed to spend using such devices. Children aged 5 and under are recommended to spend no more than one hour a day using a screen, with the underlying principle being that less is better. Children in that age group, the WHO says, should be physically active in order to develop physical and social skills that will form a foundation for later life.

The advice is being quickly adopted in China.

From June this year, video apps that are popular with young children, such as TikTok, will have a "youth mode" feature for parents that will allow them to limit the amount of time their children can spend watching content, and the type of content they see. While regulators have not yet imposed specific time limits, TikTok has stated that a limit could be set to as little as 40 minutes a day, and that access to its services could be completely out of bounds for children between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am.

Allowing parents to set the time-limit offers an element of flexibility in arguably one of the world's hardest jobs — raising a child. Much of the online content available to children also holds some form of educational value, and so imposing a strict, one-size-fits-all limit may not work for everyone.

Such safeguarding procedures could not come at a more welcome time. Short-video platform apps have taken over the world, and the lure of Instagram and TikTok will seduce children with exciting content, wherever they are in the world. It is estimated that around 650 million people in China are regular users of such apps, and this number is set to almost double in the next few years. It is worth bearing in mind that this research also cautions against too much near-distance reading of traditional books too, because there is some evidence that this can also affect the normal eye development of young children.

Research from the University of Georgia in April also indicates that the damage caused by screens is drastically reduced among teenagers. However, if we are to give our children the best possible start in life, it may be worth exposing them to the double-edged world of social media gradually.

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