As a parent of a young child, you are probably racked with guilt because you gave your toddler your phone/tablet to play with while you went to the bathroom alone. The previous guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advised NO SCREENTIME for children under the age of 2 years of age and one hour for children age 2 – 5 years.
These unyielding and idealistic guidelines did not take into consideration that our environment is cluttered with smartphones, tablets and multimedia devices and research is battling to keep up with digital innovation. The strict on/off policy in my opinion, is akin to ‘prohibition.’ The possible consequence is the development of a tween culture of insatiability, binging, over-dosing and secrecy.
Fortunately, the AAP has recently revised their recommendations for screen-time in children. Their new guidelines (yet to be formally published), recognize that screen time on multimedia devices cannot be equated to passive television watching. I addressed some the issues around television watching in my post Why TV is good for your child
Whilst we still have a lot to learn about the effects of screen time with children, here is what we do know:
(Source: Shifrin, D., Brown, A., Hill, D., Jana, L., & Flinn, S. K. (2015). Growing Up Digital: Media Research Symposium, American Academy of Pediatrics)
- Not all apps labelled as educational are educational (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015)
- Children learn language most effectively from live human interactions.
- The content of the media is more important than the time spent on it. If quality content is available then interactions with media can have a positive impact.
- Although apps and digital media may offer learning opportunities, they often intrude on less structured developmental play and can stifle creativity.
Given that it is unrealistic to prohibit screen time, we need to consider a number of factors related to screen time.
Decide what you will let you child play with and why
- Entertainment for the sake of entertainment is fine but use the opportunity to watch or play with your child and then follow up with conversation about what they have seen.
- Just because your child is swiping and tapping, does not mean they are learning. Watch and listen to how your child is engaging and make sure the content and subject matter is appropriate.
Incorporate human interaction into screen time
- Children are programmed to learn from interacting with other people. Playing with your child, taking turns or discussing content is a way to add a social learning context to screen time.
- We know that children imitate and learn from their parents. If you are modeling that being bored is equivalent to taking out your phone and playing a game or checking social media then that is the behavior that your child will learn from.
- Talk about how you use your phone. You might say something like “I’m sure dad would love to see how you climb the jungle gym so I am going to take a picture to send to him.” Or, “I am sending dad a message to remind him to pick up milk on the way home. I don’t want to disturb his meeting by calling him.”
- Along the same vein, creating media free zones such as during meal times and at bedtime allows for conversational skills to be enhanced.
- Parenting strategies are the same across various environments. You would not allow your 5 year old to choose his own bed time or meal plan, why should you allow your child unlimited access to screen time?
- Make sure screen time is balanced with outdoor play, active play and imaginary play. Don’t substitute screen time for this.
It is important recognize that not all screen time is created equal — watching a movie on TV or on a tablet is a very different to playing a game, which happens to be different to interacting with a mediator/parent using an educational app.
Common Sense Media report that kids are spending more time with screen media — and at younger ages — than ever before. There is no magic number that’s “just right.” What’s more important is the quality of kids’ media and how it fits into their — and your family’s — lifestyle.