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Concern over screen time for small kids

Regulators are against young children watching TV, but programme-makers say many parents allow it anyway

Regulators and programme-makers are at odds over whether small children should be banned from watching TV or using tablets and smartphones.

France urges parents not to allow children under the age of three to watch TV, and American paediatricians also favour a total ban on screen time until at least 18 months.

Ms Carole Bienaime-Besse, who sits on France's TV regulator, claimed on Sunday that overexposing babies and small children to digital devices has become a "public health issue".

"People are realising that screens can cause addiction even among very small children, and in extreme cases, (cause) autistic problems, what is called virtual autism.

"There are lots of educational apps for babies, but in the end the results are counterproductive," she said.

She added studies show that "children overexposed to them are the ones who find it hardest at school".

But some programme-makers insist that bans do not work, especially with so many parents using TV and devices to "babysit" their children.

It is "admirable but probably unrealistic" to try to keep small children away from screens, said Ms Alice Webb, who heads the BBC's children's arm and CBeebies network for pre-school children.

"Digital is everywhere. This is a tide you cannot get ahead of," she said.

That said, the British public broadcaster is so worried about the digital "Wild, Wild West" children are growing up in that it is holding a global summit in December to try to put heads together on how they might be better served and protected.

Ms Webb said: "We need to have this conversation now because we do not want to be saying... in 10 years' time, 'What did we do to our children?'"

She said the BBC aims CBeebies at children aged two and upwards, "but we know children younger than that are watching. So we have to be realistic about this and bear those children in mind", knowing that the TV or a tablet may be their "babysitter".

"We have games and apps that are about helping children develop the cognitive skills a two-year-old needs.

"This is about learning on screen and in the real world at the same time. It is not an either or, and it is all about moderation," Ms Webb said.

For older children, she said it is "impossible to think we can control what goes online".

SOLUTION FOR NOW

She said the only answer is to "teach children what is and is not for them... how to develop critical thinking and how to cope when they see things they do not want".

While Instagram, Twitter and Facebook claim that only teenagers over 13 are allowed onto their networks, Ms Webb said that in the United Kingdom, 75 per cent of 10-year-olds and above are on social media.

Ms Bienaime-Besse said regulators need stronger powers so they can act against inappropriate online content in the same way as they do with traditional broadcasters.

"I think it is absurd that the likes of Facebook and Twitter are not regulated like other content suppliers," she said.

And she was sceptical that the industry will self-regulate when it comes to younger children.

She said parents have to wake up to "what we are holding in our hands. Children who cannot defend themselves should be protected from the harm that these useful tools can bring".

"Kids should become masters of technology by learning coding" rather than being slaves to it, she said. - AFP

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