“Screen-time” for our kids: Is it really as bad as some fear it to be?

This article has not been written to encourage nor discourage the use of ‘screen time’ with our children. Each parent does their own, which is something I respect more than anything ! Some close to me allow their children screen time, some moderate it and some even block it from their younger ones all together. All of them are good and loving parents with smart and happy children. I’m not suggesting that all digital media is great, there are legitimate reasons that worry about the content and overuse of screens. But rather than completely closing them off, I wanted to focus on where these screens fit in with all the other things we do to develop, grow, encourage and stimulate our children? I wanted to take a closer look at the ways to a “balance in the force” if you will…

Parenting these days, consists of constantly receiving conflicting information encouraging us to do certain things, which subsequently change a year later warning us ‘not‘ to do those same things anymore.  Like how swaddling comforts our babies, but then again no it could choke them and they’ll die ; or put them in their beds on their backs, no their stomachs, I mean their sides … or they’ll die; a teething necklace how original and attachment oriented… nope… wait a second…. it could choke them and.. you guessed it… they’ll die!

When I was a new mom with baby nr. one, I spent the first 18 months worrying I’d kill my daughter if we didn’t follow advice or heaven forbid wanted to ‘trust our gut’ on certain things. With the second one we had thankfully calmed down a bit, and she pretty much plays in a sandpit of broken glass now whilst suckling on an old hairbrush …. (that, my friends, was a joke…).

1. The ‘Where and How’ of screens 

Screens are pretty much a part of life now and based on the rate at which technology is growing, it’s only going to increase. I agree that the over-use of screens are not particularly beneficial, but I also agree that screens are not necessarily the technological evil that turns our children into passive little fatties. If we threw a tablet at a 4 year old, or left them in front of the TV all day without any conversation around it nor monitoring of the content, sure.. we’d be creating consumers who would click, slide and drag their way through life. But if we moderated their screen time,  filtered out and distinguished programs that educate, motivate and teach our children about technology through play.. you could say that we would be turning those consumers into little creators themselves.

The idea of when to introduce screens to our children ofcourse seems to be widely debated with some stating it’s never too early to learn and others holding off for as long as they can.. I’ll be honest, I myself think it’s a personal choice and neither one will detrimentally screw up your child nor turn them into a gifted individual either.

2. Challenging our perception of screens 

Often we feel guilty when we’ve plopped our kids in front of the television in order to prep dinner, take a shower or heck… I’ll admit it… just to have a little peace and quiet for five minutes. We feel we need to be there to teach them everything they need to know and the idea of a screen ‘babysitting’ our child can often leave us feeling a bit anxious or stressed.

If we change our negative perception of screens we open ourselves up to the potential for good they might have. Instead of seeing it as a ‘digital babysitter’ to shut up our child, we start seeing and using it a as an occasional tool to promote emotional and intellectual growth.

Sara DeWitt (head of PBS Kids Digital) often refers to the example of Fred Rogers in her articles and conferences. In a time where television was fairly new (and even back then the anxiety around ‘screen time’ was already very real) Fred Rogers was the creator of the popular children’s tv show ‘Mr Roger’s neighborhood’ in the US. He saw television as a tool for children to learn and grow and developed a new style where he would look directly into the camera, pause and ‘wait’ for the children to interact with him. A style we often see now in children programs such as Dora the Explorer Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger. This style has given young children the perception that they are part of the program and that the characters are in fact talking to them personally. We might know that’s not the case, but a 3 year old luckily still has that sense of wonder going for them.

3. Everything in Moderation and Balance 

In our house, the television is an occasional tool used to educate, entertain and motivate our two daughters (aged 1 and 4). As they are multilingual children, the languages of the programs we choose also help us in exposing them to a certain language more when needed (for example: I speak Dutch, my husband French and although we speak English together, it’s the language our kids hear the least at this stage as we live in France). Peppa Pig, Dora the Explorer and the Australian Wiggles have contributed considerably to their English vocabulary. Such programs have also aided in teaching them about politeness, empathy, curiosity and dance at the same time.

In saying that, things like outside play, reading and writing, arts and crafts, socializing and face to face conversation/lessons/etc are still very important and key in the emotional, physical, and educational development of our children and should never be put aside no matter how much our world changes. The television in our house is merely a tool, it is not what predominantly educates our children, that’s still on us.

4. The Importance of Content 

Balance is not only important in the time we give to screens but also in its content. Games or TV shows don’t always have to be a waste of time and many have been developed to promote real learning. For example, research studies have shown that certain Math games (like Curious George, Odd Squad etc) have taught kids real math skills. PBS Kids informs us that their development partners at UCLA even believe that games can help us understand more about a child’s critical thinking skills than a standardized test can. With the increased pressure of constantly testing our children, often resulting in testing anxiety and “pigeon-holing” kids, couldn’t that be another way for teachers to have a better insight into student learning (PBS Digital, 2016).

5. Screens won’t isolate your children as long as you don’t either 

As a psychologist I can’t stress enough how important it is to really communicate with your child on a regular basis. No matter how little or how much time they spend in front of a screen. We need to talk with our children about themselves, their emotions, their questions, their theories, their fears, you name it! Although we use tools to help us parent, they need to know we’re interested in their lives, in both the big and the small, sometimes seemingly trivial stuff. This includes talking about what they see and use on screens…

In recent years, there have been various studies that show that certain programs or educational games have aided in teaching children general knowledge, language and literacy as well as social-emotional growth. However, these studies also showed that the benefit was stronger when the parents spoke with their children about what they watched. Neither just watching nor just talking about the topic was enough, the combination was key (Texas Tech University, 2016). I can see how a child could become isolated if they are planted in front of a screen, for long periods of time, with no other interactions. Nevertheless, within an age-appropriate time limit and content, we can use such programs to add into our daily interactions. For example, a child might learn through an app how birds fly, what stops us from taking them for a walk in the park afterwards to see the real deal? The other day we spoke with our daughters about sharing with each other, you can imagine their delight when ‘Peppa Pig’ had the same talk with her parents after getting into a fight with her little brother George (yes the cartoon).

If we talk with them about what they learn and see it could help us better understand their insights, show an interest in who they are and (in my case at least) they might even teach us a thing or two!

So do I have it all figured out now that I’ve done some research and written this article? Not even close! I am learning every day as they grow into little individuals within an ever changing world that, frankly, sometimes I struggle to keep up with.

I wanted (in a way) to ‘defend’ myself against those who might see parents who use screen time, as possibly lazy or distant. I wanted to encourage those who do use screens to do so in moderation but to not feel ashamed about it. But I also wanted to applaud those who avoid screens and spend all that extra time on education with their children, I truly wish I had more of it sometimes.

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