A British psychologist visiting New Zealand is urging parents to get tough with their kids on time spent in front of television and computers, saying that screen time should be rationed as if it was sugar, salt or saturated fats.

Dr Aric Sigman, whose latest book, The Spoilt Generation: Why restoring authority will make our children and society happier, said adults must reclaim their authority. A new breed of parents, who were afraid of confronting their children, had created a “spoilt generation” with a sense of entitlement and lack of empathy.

Spending hours a day in front of screens instead of relating to family and other people certainly does not increase empathy. But Sigman also highlights damaging physical effects:

Within the past month a peer- reviewed study in the United States has been published showing changes in children’s bloodstream in front of screens.

Insulin-resistant hormones, linked to heart disease and diabetes, dropped in children watching screens for more than an hour.

Studies also showed a child’s metabolism rate slowed in front of a screen, more than if reading or doing other passive activities.

He says parents have been too focused on the content of what children are watching, but whether they were looking at “the most educational thing in the world or porno”, the effects were the same.

He overstates his case a little there, but his point is valid.

He suggested parents try to limit screen time to less than two hours a day for children aged three to seven, and close to zero for under-threes.

“Something has fundamentally changed, but the good news is that the solution is cheap and easy.” 

Children should be given boundaries with consequences for breaking the boundaries – although these would be different across families, he said.

“They do not need parents to be equal best friends, they need parents to be parents. We have a new generation of parents who cannot bear to see their children disappointed, or crying, and they can’t stand confrontation when they come home after a hard day at work.”

I will be hearing Dr Sigman speak at a family conference on Friday and will have more to report later on. Stay tuned.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet