To my knowledge, the past weekend saw many parents scratch their heads over summer holiday plans for their children and one of the challenges is to balance their screen time.
In today's digital world, we the parents turn to screens for entertainment more often than we realize, and so do our kids. The consequences for them, however, can be much more far-reaching than for us.
It was not surprising when my tween daughter and her whole primary school class began to hum the "Dancing Pallbears" tune soon after the short video clip featuring flamboyant coffin-carrying dances in Ghana went viral, considering the fact that youngsters fell into the largest age group of China's 873 million short video users at the end of last year, according to official data.
Technological advances have made it increasingly easier for today's younger generation to get access to the Internet, while the prevalence of online teaching, especially in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, has justified kids' screen time.
Weak in self-regulation, they, more often than not, are distracted by engaging video games, amusing short video clips and a dizzying array of toys and accessories they can shop for, and automatically become hooked on them. Among all the distractions, short video clips gained unparalleled popularity in recent years due to their entertaining and sometimes educational features.
China's mobile Internet users, with 26 percent of them being youngsters, spend as much as a quarter of their daily surfing time using short video apps, according to a National Copyright Administration report released last month. A Beijing Youth Daily survey of nearly 2,000 parents showed that 92.1 percent of them found their kids enjoyed watching short video clips, and 66.3 percent were worried their children might imitate bad behavior they might see.
Parents have good reasons to worry. In August 2019, an accidental explosion killed a 14-year-old girl from Zaozhuang, Shandong Province, when she tried to make popcorn with a soda can heated with ethanol, as demonstrated in a short video she watched, and injured her 13-year-old playmate.
Even if they refrain from risk-taking imitations, or are protected from vulgar content under the so-called "teenager mode," as required by the Cyberspace Administration of China, the amount of time they spend looking at screens can bring health or cognitive consequences that may only become evident over time.
While official data shows the rate of Shenzhen students with myopia has reached 53 percent, Dr. Yang Feng of Shenzhen Second People's Hospital, a respected expert in his research field, warned that the adverse impact of excessive screen time on children, as shown by numerous studies home and abroad, is not restricted to damages to their eyesight. It could cause speech and attention problems among many others, he said.
Prof. Liu Qing of East China Normal University also sounded the alarm earlier this year by sharing his observations. A surprisingly high proportion of his students failed to fulfill the assignment when he required them to complete reading one book every three weeks. Astonished and baffled, Liu researched on college students' habitual behavior and found, instead of reading books, they spent time on screens, which are naturally more appealing and don't require a lot of cognitive effort. To Liu, real education, especially higher education, demands time and energy spent on long, and sometimes strenuous, reading as well as in-depth thinking. Students of this era, he said, are weak in this regard, as fragmented on-screen information has kept them too distracted.
Parents of younger children still have the chance to nip the problems in the bud. While discussing screen time reduction plans with our children, we should be aware that the toughest but most effective way is for us to be a good model for behavior. It also helps if we understand that we don't have to keep our children entertained all the time as boredom is also an important part of childhood development.
(The author is a business editor with Shenzhen Daily.)