Technology is an inescapable part of our kids’ world. Unless you live off the grid in a log shack in the woods, Swiss Family Robinson-style, there’s no way to shield your kids from the screens they encounter everywhere, seemingly from birth. Nor is there a need to. The fact is, they’ve been born into the midst of a technological renaissance that’s shown no signs of slowing down. Imagine what the world might look like when they’re adults: augmented reality, wearable tech, self-driving cars, bionic body parts… who knows?
For now, though, let’s talk about the issue parents are most concerned about — screen time.
As with every aspect of parenting, there are a dozen schools of thought on screen time, and each has its merits. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero screen time before 18 months. For kids ages, 2-5, up to an hour per day is permitted, ideally with parent participation. (You can even use an app to keep track of your kids’ screen time….which seems to me a little like the pot calling the kettle black.)
Those are fine aspirations, but let’s get realistic.
I grew up in the days when spending an hour playing Oregon Trail or Odell Lake on a clunky Apple IIe was somehow considered an integral part of our educational curriculum. (“Computer lab,” they called it, as though we were going to conduct experiments or build the machines ourselves.) Nowadays, screen time is a little like junk food: We know too much is bad for us, but we still guiltily partake, and we’re embarrassed to admit how much our children do too.
For our toddler, what started as ambivalence toward the iPad soon turned into curiosity and then full-fledged fascination. We quickly realized the power that screen time held for such an inquisitive young mind: its potential to captivate — and its potential to ensnare. Yet we didn’t cut him off completely because, let’s be honest, there are times when screen time is simply a life-saver. (Especially when you have two under two.)
There’s no doubt screen time has some value. Our children have access to a vast world of knowledge and endless learning opportunities at their fingertips. High-quality programs like Sesame Street have been shown to improve literacy skills and cognitive development. And educational apps make learning fun with games, puzzles and interactive content.
In many ways, our son is a testament to the boundless educational potential of technology. He absorbs content like a sponge. As a result of watching educational videos, he knew his letters, numbers, shapes, and colors — all by the time he was 18 months old.
Of course, I’m not denying the downsides of screen time. Numerous studies raise concerns about how screen time, when overused, can displace critical developmental opportunities such as imaginative play, outdoor time and physical activity. The result: Decreased attention spans, stunted interpersonal interactions, lagging motor skills, obesity, even sleep problems.
I whole-heartedly agree that low-tech living has enormous benefits for children and adults alike. Growing up, my family spent every summer at a rustic cabin in northern Minnesota. Those summers were among the most valued treasures of my childhood. We spent every day outside, building forts in the woods, paddling across the lake, fishing for bass in the shallows, hunting for crayfish along the shore, picking bucket-fulls of late-summer raspberries and playing epic games of hide-and-seek in the state forest across the road. We didn’t have a TV, so on rainy days, we read books or worked on a puzzle.
Those summers taught us infinitely more than we could have ever learned in front of a TV or iPad. I’d like to think we developed a rugged perseverance from this pseudo-pioneer lifestyle. We bathed in the lake most days. Although we had running water, it wasn’t drinkable, so we had to haul in water from town. Our delicate septic system meant that the indoor toilet was reserved for number one only. Going number two involved making the steep trek up our unpaved driveway to a cobweb-filled outhouse. (Fortunately, exceptions were made during the nighttime thunderstorms that often shook the cabin walls and sent us scurrying into our parents’ bed.) That tiny cabin housed not only a family of five but also the countless critters that made their way in through the cracks — spiders, mosquitoes, moths, mice, you name it.
Despite these screen-free summers, technology was by no means absent from our lives. We spent ample time in front of the TV during the school year. I distinctly remember watching the same Sesame Street episodes twice per day (once in the morning, and again after school). Most weeknights, I’d whittle away at my homework during commercial breaks of Home Improvement. Fridays were all about the TGIF lineup and Saturdays were movie nights.
I was also among the first of my peers to have the luxury of a home computer. My siblings and I spent hours playing Mind Maze on Encarta. Once AOL came along, we vied for Internet time to IM friends, explore kid-safe chat rooms and make simplistic Angelfire websites. And when I received my first PC video game for Christmas (Baldur’s Gate, circa 1998), I spent virtually my entire winter break absorbed in the Forgotten Realms.
Sure, we still ventured outside on a regular basis — trekking a few blocks to the neighborhood sledding hill, building snow forts in the front yard and throwing snowballs at passing cars. But we had no shortage of screen time. And, as far as I can tell, we all turned out okay.
It seems to me that, like most mixed bags in life, screen time is fine in moderation. The trick is finding the right balance.
Here are some tips that we’ve found helpful:
- Establish a routine: You don’t need to schedule blocks of screen time or impose militant limits down to the second. However, setting a loose routine can help contain your kids’ expectations. Make screen time a privilege rather than a right.
- Keep the content educational: Not all apps (or shows) are equal. YouTube Kids, for example, has dozens of quality videos, but also plenty of mind-numbing content with no educational content whatsoever (“ambulance finger,” anyone?). Instead of setting your kids loose in that free-for-all, consider cultivating playlists for them with carefully chosen content. You can also opt for alternatives like PBS Kids.
- Set aside time every day for tech-free zones: Sitting down together for a family meal, playing outside and reading books are all opportunities to unplug. Make these “together” moments — when you connect with each other instead of a screen — an invaluable part of each day.
- Don’t rely on screens as calming devices: Yes, I’ll admit that I tuck the iPad in my purse whenever we go to a doctor’s appointment or sit-down restaurant. You never know when you might need the “nuclear option,” as we call it. But in general, we try not to whip it out every time our toddler is upset. We don’t want it to become a crutch.
- Don’t let it encroach on bedtime: Experts are unanimous in their advice to keep TVs and tablets out of kids’ bedrooms. They recommend a half-hour buffer, at a minimum, between screen time and bedtime to overstimulation (and harsh blue-light exposure) that can interfere with sleep.
- Stay involved: Keep a close eye on what your kids watch. When you can, watch with them, or sit down to play an educational game together on the tablet. There’s something different about doing it together. It becomes a more enriching, interactive experience. Plus you can reinforce what they’re learning.
- Set a good example: I’ll be the first to admit that putting down my phone is a constant struggle. As if on autopilot, I’m frequently reaching for it to stave off a few seconds of boredom and fill in the cracks of life. Still, I make concerted efforts to avoid this habit around my kids. If they’re always seeing me staring at a screen, how can I expect to enforce screen-time limits with them?
In the end, I’m no expert. My kids aren’t even old enough beg us for daily Moana or Frozen viewings (yet). Those days will come with a whole new set of screen-time challenges.
For now, though, we’ve learned to chart a course between strict limits and over-indulgence. It might not get the AAP’s stamp of approval, but it’s a middle ground that works well for our lives.
What works well for yours?