Could more screen time actually benefit my child?
Remember playing the telephone game at school and summer camp? The leader would give a message like, “There’s supposed to be a storm tonight with thunder and lightning.” Everyone whispered the message to the person next to them and by the time the statement got to the last person in line, it was something like, “The reporter was wearing sneakers with glow-in-the-dark laces.”
It’s a fun game for summer camp, but when it happens in real life, it’s a serious problem.
Contradictory messages about screen time
The telephone game is what I think of when I see all the contradictory messages for parents about screen time. Screen time is an issue many parents struggle with, so sensationalizing it is sure to draw an audience. This is why so many of the headlines are incredibly dramatic. Headlines promise answers to the question that haunts parents — how bad is screen time for my children – especially when they’re getting so much of it while schools are closed?
In reality, dramatic headlines usually lead to stories with inconclusive information, misinterpretation of scientific data, or controversial opinions. The more disconnected an article is from solid research, the more opportunity there is for manipulation and misunderstanding. Writers, especially those who are not experts in the field they are writing about or familiar with best practices in research, depend upon the researchers to present their findings clearly. Unfortunately, all research, and research papers, are not equal.
The authors of one tiny research project which studied only 47 children concluded that “further study” was needed to look at screen time and brain development. Based on this research, we got headlines like, Scientists finally know what screen time does to your toddler’s brain. That article asserts that “more screen time leads to slower brain development.”
But when we actually look at the research behind the article, we can see that children who watch more screen time have some structural differences in the white matter of their brains. We don’t know how much more screen time needs to be watched for these differences to occur, and the researchers also acknowledge that many of the differences disappear once socioeconomic status was taken into account. Because the results were correlational, the changes in brain structure could have been caused by something entirely unrelated to screen time, and actually related to socioeconomic status. It hardly seems like we “finally” know what screen time does to our child’s brain at all.
Screen time is hard to study – like most aspects of early childhood – because there are so many variables at play. Considering the complexity of the issue, it’s irresponsible to present the correlational results from one tiny study as a definitive answer.
What do the experts say about screen time?
One way I combat all the misinformation is to focus on statements made by the experts. When it comes to children, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is one of my most trusted resources. There’s an episode of Your Parenting Mojo called Understanding the AAP’s new screen time guidelines.
In short, there was a change in the AAP’s Policy Statement on Media and Young Minds in 2016. Here are the highlights:
- No screen time other than video chatting for infants under 18 months
- Children ages 2-5 should be limited to high-quality programming and they should be exposed to less than 1 hour a day
- Parents and children should view media together
- Have set times and places that are media-free (like at the dinner table)
- Make sure media time does not reduce time spent sleeping or engaging in physical activity
After looking at the AAP statement and some of the research studies that they based their statement on, I had three major takeaways:
- Media use should not replace activities that children need for proper development (more about that later.)
- High-quality, developmentally-appropriate media, is best.
- Even when studies found a relationship between screen time and behavioral functioning or cognitive development, they were not able to demonstrate that screens caused these differences in cognitive development.
For example, if researchers find children consuming more media have more behavioral problems, is the media causing the behavior, or are parents more inclined to allow more screen time when their children have behavioral problems? Is there some other factor at play? We just don’t know.
And how can we use these guidelines in a time when we may feel reliant on screens to keep our children entertained for at least part of the day while we work?
A developmental perspective
Current research is inconclusive with regards to screens and childhood, so I think the best thing we can do is focus on what we do know and apply it to our child’s life. In my interview with Dr. Kristy Goodwin, one of Australia’s leading digital parenting experts and the author of Raising Your Child in a Digital World, we discussed the 7 basic developmental needs children have: relationships, language exposure, sleep, play, movement, good nutrition, and opportunities to develop executive function skills (skills related to setting goals, planning, and carrying out our plans).
Dr. Goodwin has a helpful exercise to help parents figure out how screens should fit into their child’s life. If we think of our child’s day – a 24 hour period as a jar, the top priority is to ensure we are meeting the 7 basic needs. The amount of sleep will vary, but if we go with an average of 12 hours, which is within the recommended range of time for 3-5 year-olds to sleep, it makes the math easier. Next, consider the amount of time required for eating. Again, this will vary from child-to-child, but if we have 3 meals and 2 snacks each day, that might be 2 hours spent on nutrition. Now we need to determine how much time should the child be spending on the other building blocks. Obviously, there’s some overlap. If you are helping your toddler get dressed, you are working on social, executive function, physical movement, and language.
This is where I believe most articles that advise (or shame) parents about screen time fall short.
It makes sense that a single activity, like getting dressed, touches on multiple needs. I think screen time can also overlap with some of these needs. We need to be mindful about the screen time we allow. Of course, screen time isn’t necessary to develop these skills, but it doesn’t have to take time away from them either.
“How much screen time is ok for my child?” isn’t the right question. I prefer to ask: “What developmental necessity is this particular screen time activity building?”
How screen time contributes to the developmental building blocks
Most of the parents I talk to worry about the amount of screen time their children are getting, especially now it may seem like one of the few options we have to keep our child busy while we work.
Some screen time activities overlap nicely with the developmental needs children have. Lisa Guernsey, director of the teaching, learning and tech program at New America says, “What people are really concerned about is not screen time. It’s mindless time, or it’s sedentary time or it’s being alone,” There are ways to use technology and screens that are not mindless, sedentary, or lonely. If we look for those kinds of activities, the conversation around screen time becomes much more nuanced – and productive.
Video chatting with relatives is a nice way to help children build stronger social connections. Even the AAP separates video chatting from other kinds of undesirable screen time – digital babysitters can be enormously helpful right now. My five-year-old can easily spend an hour video chatting with her aunt or grandparents, which also frees up time for me.
Benefits of reading with children are widely acknowledged. Digital books, or eBooks can widen your child’s reading options almost infinitely. Most public libraries can provide access to eBooks. I use the Libby app to access audiobooks for myself, but Libby can also provide access to eBooks and audiobooks for children; all I needed to get started was my library card. Some books for children are packed with ‘bells and whistles’ to make them interactive. Although interactivity is usually a good thing in media, the AAP warns that these features can decrease a child’s comprehension. It’s best to use books that are more similar to print.
Isolation is frequently listed as a problem associated with technology, but if children are playing a game with a parent, relative, or friend, they might be discussing strategy, collaborating, and taking turns. By sharing the screen with another person, children are developing relationships and language. They may even be working on executive functioning skills if they are working on a building or strategy-based game. Ideally this sharing a screen would mean two people are in the same location using the same screen, but playing a game or reading a book via an app works, too.
Apps and activities where children have the opportunity to create can develop executive function and language skills. My daughter really enjoys watching videos of herself. Recently I took a video of her “reading” a book. When children see themselves doing things like reading, it helps motivate them to read more. Having a grandparent or other relative record themselves reading a book or two each week can be a lovely way to build family connections but that takes away the pressure that both grandparent and grandchild can feel on a face-to-face video call.
There are also apps available that allow children to create their own animated cartoons, and then record a story to go along with the action. My daughter needed about five minutes of instruction on the basic features before she was off and running. As she narrates her videos, she is developing her language and story-telling abilities.
If you have an old digital camera kicking around, children can have great fun with those too – children can make slideshows of things around the house that interest them. More than a few of ours have featured images of the toilet. Sometimes with its contents.
The internet can make literacy activities more authentic for children. Adults read and write for a purpose. Educators work hard to give students authentic reading and writing experiences. This means they are reading and writing for a real, not contrived, purpose. A child who is reluctant to read on their own might be interested in reading on video if they can then send the video to a relative (or just watch themselves being awesome later.)
Don’t completely neglect ‘passive’ media like videos, although we have to acknowledge that some videos are better than others. If you can’t be with your child while you’re watching, you’ll want to stick with content that aims a little lower so your child can understand the content even without an explanation from you. If you and your child can watch a video together and talk about it, then you’re developing language and relationships with the video and you can also aim the content a little higher. I really like the collection of videos on The Kid Should See This, which are created for adults but are child-friendly with a little explanation.
Other videos encourage kids to exercise. Lots of schools use GoNoodle to give students “brain breaks.” These videos that get kids moving are also available to families. Kids can learn dance moves, yoga, and relaxation techniques. Learning Station is a Youtube Channel that gets kids moving. When playing outside isn’t an option, videos can inspire physical activity that is much safer than jumping on the bed.
Play may be the toughest developmental need to meet with technology. That’s because the play that children need is not the kind where they repeatedly push a button or mindlessly tap on things. The play they need should involve creativity and planning. It should also involve manipulating objects. I don’t know a whole lot about Minecraft, but my understanding is that it’s all about building, exploring, and crafting. That seems like an activity where children could get some of the required play, but I think it could also be used in a way that isn’t effective (and it’s for older children.) If you engage in techno-play with your child, you’ll be able to tell if what they are doing is helpful or not.
In general, if the activity a child is doing on a screen is interactive in some way, it’s more likely to be beneficial. Instead of focusing on the number of minutes your child is using screens, focus on how they are using the screens and what needs are being met.
Screen time in the “new normal” life
As many of us are spending less time with people outside our families and more time at home, screen time has increased dramatically for both adults and children. The CDC website states that it is very important to stay connected to friends and family we don’t live with, and that the safe way to do this during the pandemic is through technology.
We need to give ourselves some grace right now. Pay attention to how online activities are influencing your child’s mood. Encourage activities that seem to be a positive influence, and try to reduce the time spent doing less helpful activities.
Perhaps in the story of our children’s lives, this pandemic will be remembered as the time in their lives when they had the freedom to go a little wild–they stayed in their pajamas all day, played video games, and sat in their parents’ laps while they had Zoom meetings for work. I think whatever positive memories we can create are essential to getting through this time.
Right now screen time is more likely to have a positive impact on mental health than a negative impact. If allowing screen time right now makes you a calmer happier parent, I hope you’ll give yourself permission to let loose.
Putting it all together
Remember that not all screen time is equal. School work and video chats are completely different from mindless videos – which can also have an occasional role to play (don’t we adults zone out in front of mindless videos sometimes??). I’ve seen lots of local places offering opportunities for kids to take virtual painting classes, dance lessons, and even soccer practice online using social media or video chat. Teachers are sharing videos of themselves reading stories. Rather than counting the Screen Time minutes, a much more nuanced approach will both get us through Shelter in Place restrictions and even contribute to our children’s learning and development.
Nusheen Ameenuddin, a Mayo Clinic doctor and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics council on communications and media, was recently quoted in the Washington Post saying, “I don’t want parents to beat themselves up about anything. These are really extraordinary, unusual circumstances and we don’t expect anyone — even before covid-19 — to follow rules 100 percent.”