Over the holidays the topic of children’s screen time came up in a variety of conversations. It was often the topic of discussion amongst members of our extended family, but it also keeps popping up in the news and in online think pieces. It’s a bit strange to see how screen time has gone from a relatively small research topic 5-10 years ago to a massive cause of parental angst. As a researcher and blogger on the topic, I have some thoughts.
In particular, I have thoughts on screen time for young children (e.g. <3 years of age). I haven’t actually done any research on this age group myself, so I’m speaking mostly from my experience as a parent (which, I will admit, may be very different from that of others).
My take on the published literature is that screen time is generally bad for kids – just like cake, ice cream, or Coke. So like junk food, screen time should be consumed in small doses, relatively infrequently. To borrow from Yoni Freedhoff, I would argue that you should aim for the lowest amount of screen time that you and your kids need to be happy.
Let me say up front that letting your kid watch TV or use an iPad does not make you a bad parent. Kids are going to get some screen time, just like they’re going to eat junk food. But the evidence that we have right now suggests that kids are better off when they get less screen time, rather than more.
If you have a young child and would like to limit their screen time, here are some suggestions based on my family’s experience. Use the ones you like, and ignore the rest.
1. Make play rooms and bedrooms screen free zones
This is probably the single biggest thing you can do to limit screen time for young children. I grew up with a TV in my playroom. So whenever I was playing, the TV was on in the background. My wife and I don’t have a TV in our living room, where our son spends most of his free time. This drastically reduces the opportunities he has for watching TV, without us having to make any sort of conscious effort to do so. We don’t tend to use a computer or tablet in that room either.
The same goes for bedrooms – kids (and likely adults) who have TVs in their rooms watch more TV, and get less sleep. Even if you believe that screens have no direct impact on a child’s cognitive or social development, it is worth keeping screens out of the bedroom simply for benefits to sleep. There really is no good reason for a young child to have a screen based device (e.g. TV, tablet, smart phone, iPod, etc) in their bedroom.
2. Make rules around screen time
There is one thing that tends to differentiate kids who get lots of screen time, from those who don’t get a lot of screen time: rules. It doesn’t matter what the rules are – only one show before bedtime, 1 hour of video games/day, no TV on nice summer days (this was a big one in my house growing up), etc. Kids who grow up with rules around screen time tend to get less screen time.
3. Distract kids with books and toys, rather than screens
A common argument against bans on screen time is that allowing a child to sit in front of a screen can help a parent to do important things that might not otherwise get done. Cooking, cleaning, work, parenting other children, etc. I’m sympathetic to this argument, because parenting is very hard.
But I also wonder why it is so important that we give children screens to occupy their attention, rather than other things (toys, books, puzzles, etc). How did we distract kids prior to the iPhone? I can only speak from my own experience, but we’ve found that getting a toddler excited about just about any toy or book does the trick just as well as a screen. This may very well change as kids age, and it may not be as easy with 2nd, 3rd, etc children, who see older kids with their own screens. And full disclosure: my kid goes to daycare on a regular basis, which certainly cuts down on the hours that need to be filled.
I’m just surprised at how frequently screens are presented as the option for entertaining children, as opposed to one of several options, most of which are less expensive and last longer.
4. It’s ok for kids to be bored
Just writing this makes me feel like a curmudgeon. Raise your hand if you remember spending what felt like hours waiting for your parents or siblings go back-to-school shopping, or get a haircut, or go to band practice. Your head did not explode from the boredom. It might have even been good for you. You turned out ok. So will our kids. Louis C.K. has a similar take on this. Jump to the 0:54 mark. (some strong language).
4. Model good behaviours
This one is really hard. Sometimes kids get up at 5am, and you are exhausted, and you just desperately want to watch hockey highlights on your iPad while your kid eats. Or read Slate on your phone. Or respond to emails. I get it. I’ve done it. But try not to.
I’ve recently made an effort to buy more actual physical books and magazines, so that I can spend more time reading those, rather than spend my time on a screen. It’s working well so far. The nice thing about physical books/magazines is that when you are using them, people know what you are doing. If I’m reading a magazine at my in-laws over Christmas, they can see that I’m reading a magazine. If I’m on an iPad, I could be reading, or sending a message to a friend, or doing work. That doesn’t sound that important, but I think it’s reassuring to people for some reason.
One caveat here is that I think it matters much more that you model good behaviours once kids are >8-9 months of age, and start to actually understand what they are looking at. I don’t think an infant is going to notice if their mother is watching Netflix while nursing in the middle of the night. But I know that my toddler will notice if I’m on Twitter instead of playing with him.
5. Make screen time family time
We haven’t really gotten to this point yet, but it’s our long term plan. At some point our son will be old enough that he will want to watch TV shows, sports, movies, etc. When that happens, we want to make the screen time a collective experience. I still like watching hockey games with my Dad when I’m at home for the holidays, because it’s something we can do together. I think there is some legitimate value to that type of screen-based experience.
6. Don’t buy screens for young children
It’s a bit terrifying to see how many screen-based toys are being created for young children. Kids will have plenty of time to develop their computer/media literacy when they are older. Toddlers don’t need a tablet-mounted exercise bike.
7. Send your kids outside to play (without a screen)
Not everyone has access to a safe outdoor space to play. But if you do, send your kids there as much as possible. Outdoor play is naturally more active than indoor play, and kids really like it. And it tires them out, so they sleep better. It’s just a really, really good idea.
Featured image by bradleypjohnson.