Full Disclosure: this article is all about what I consider best practices. I do not always follow these recommendations myself. In fact at this very moment I’m on my laptop in the bed. I need to work on being a better model for my readers! But there’s no need to make the perfect the enemy of the good. When we know our ideals, it’s easier to make choices because we know what we want to aim for. Skip the background and jump to the recommendations.
What’s the problem?
Screen time is a big deal for kids. We all know this. And unlike maybe 10-15 years ago, I doubt it’s even any bigger to us nerdy parents than anyone else. It’s no longer a first-adopter-problem. But we don’t need to be afraid of screen time.
The AAP now recommends no screen time whatsoever for children under eighteen months, and no more than an hour a day for kids two to five. And since that recommendation doesn’t differentiate between types of screen time – they do suggest you stick to “quality” programming like PBS – that means no TV when you’re up at three AM breastfeeding and struggling to stay awake. And if you’ve got older kids, the toddlers must be separated while Ready, Jet, Go! plays in the living room. Since you’re expected to monitor screen usage, I guess you lock the baby in their room while the preschooler has their hour of screen time? Or else you only allow screens when there are two adults available – one watches the baby and the other watches TV. Heck, technically you shouldn’t even be reading an ebook or scrolling Facebook when you’re holding your baby since they may see the screen and swipe at it, setting your screen to rolling and thereby forming connections in their tiny, impressionable brains about how the screens work. (That last point is not sarcasm – at six months the Young Wolf is certainly learning to operate a touchscreen and keyboard just by swatting at my phone and laptop, respectively.)
Everyone knows there are concerns that come with screen time. Fewer people know that similar concerns arose when the writing was becoming more commonplace, with Socrates himself arguing basically that the written word was misinformation that would rot people’s brains and turn their memories to mush (slightly paraphrased). And it happened again with the inventions of the printing press and the telephone.
Okay so what’s my problem?
There’s a lot of research that has been put forth warning us about the risks of excessive screen time, but these studies (or at least the public reports on them) almost always make the most fundamental flaw of scientific reporting – assuming correlation equals causation. It just makes sense to people that because we know screens must be dangerous – they’re new after all – that it must be because of the screens that teens who use screens often are more likely to be depressed than those who use them less frequently. There’s rarely consideration that it’s possible either that depressed teens are more likely to turn to screens as a form of escapism or that there may be a shared cause, like a lack of physical activity.
When I was a teen, there were plenty of us “indoor kids” who found non-active ways to spend our time, didn’t get much physical activity, and were more likely to be depressed, but I’ve never heard the claim that reading caused the depression. In fact, there’s some research that reading is associated with being happier, and at least one (totally NOT causal) study has shown the same correlation for screen time.
There’s also a ton of instances where all types of screen time – social media, watching videos, reading ebooks, playing video games, etc… – are treated the same, or worse, research on one type is extrapolated to look like it applies to all types. In fact, the only study I’ve heard of that even attempts to actually demonstrate a causal relationship shows that eliminating a single type of screen time (Facebook) leads to higher levels of happiness. It’s a small study over only a week, but I’d love to see more like it. It confirms my own experience with Facebook, but, personally, that improvement in mood is still there even when I replace my Facebook time with other non-social-media screen time.
I also expect that there’s an element of classism in the arguments against technology – both in our time and that of Socrates. It’s much easier to restrict access to information to those deemed worthy enough when that information can only be found at the original source. Furthermore, it’s a lot easier to monitor your kids’ screen time when you have a partner who can earn enough for you to stay at home. It’s even easier when you’ve got enough disposable income to spend some on a weekly housekeeper, meal kits, or other things that make the rest of your life easier so you can devote your attention to parenting.
This isn’t to say that I deny that there are dangers that come along with screen time, especially for young kids. It is to say that I thoroughly agree that “you can’t stop progress” and that it’s downright arrogant to think that we can even imagine what role screens will play for our children twenty or more years into the future.
I don’t think I can dam up the river of technology my kids will have in their lives so instead my aim is to make sure they’ve got rafts they can use. That means a few things.
How to manage screen time without limiting it.
Think about what your kids can do WITH their screens instead of only stressing about what they could do instead. I recently downloaded an app that reads sight words so my daughter can pick the one that she hears. It’s a start, but that’s still thinking small time. How cool are interactive storytelling apps like Speakaboos? When I was a kid, I loved recording myself on cassette telling stories and hosting radio shows. Not only do kids have access to a nearly unlimited selection of audiobooks (which I expect Socrates would have loved BTW) between Audible, Epic!, and your local library, but they can make their own even easier than in my day. They can even add video – acting out their stories, puppet shows, even rudimentary animation for the patient and artistically minded!
Graphic design, problem solving, coding – these are fairly advanced topics that are made approachable at a very young age via smartphones and tablets.
When your kids want to engage in passive screen time (typically watching TV) – make it active. When My Gal Friday asks to watch Creative Galaxy, we say “Okay – let’s get out your art supplies so you can create something along with them!” If it’s Pokemon, “Do you want to work on your Pokemon puzzle while you watch?”
To be clear – this doesn’t go the other way. I’m not saying that if your kid wants to do something physical that you should put on related TV in the background. Music is better, and for many kids silence is even better than that. This is a way to make TV less passive, not a way to make educational activities less “boring.” If the kid is already happy to do the activity then they clearly don’t think it’s boring, educational or not.
Screen time can provide a whole world of accessibility options for kids with disabilities or delays. If your kids are all fully-abled and progressing on schedule, it’s an easy thing to forget or ignore. But when your kid is three and still only saying a few words, while getting increasingly frustrated that you can’t understand, discovering AAC (augmented and alternative communication) apps is life-changing. Outright demonizing of screens has a significant aftertaste of ableism, even though most people don’t mean it that way.
Make sure you are aware of whatever your kids are doing on their screens. My daughter has essentially unlimited screen time but my own limit is no YouTube. That probably sounds insanely strict to other parents because I know there’s a ton of kids’ programming on YouTube, but after a handful of run-ins with the creepy Peppa Pig videos we cut it out altogether, including hiding the app on my phone just in case.
When you can, play with them. Try to limit the amount of time you use screens as a crutch rather than worrying about limiting the total screen time. By all means put on an episode of Daniel Tiger or Creative Galaxy (aka Daniel Tiger with art) or hand them a tablet without restrictions while you’re vacuuming, or on a long car trip, but otherwise be present. And don’t forget the power of boredom for the development of creativity.
Finally, if you’re still worried they’re getting too much screen time – offer them something better. My daughter will sit with her tablet all day if left alone, but nine times in ten, the minute I say “Hey! Let’s go to the playground!” or “Can I read a Pokémon story with you?” she tosses it to the side. On the other hand, you know what doesn’t work for me? “Hey you’ve been on your tablet too long. It’s time to do something else.” Even worse – the same thing said without even looking up from my own phone. Connection is key.
Model Healthy Behavior
I don’t want to suggest that the AAP is wrong (after all, Dr. Nerd is a member) – to the contrary, I think they have a lot of great advice for older kids and teens, which follows a lot of the same points here. Be present and engaged in what your kids are doing rather than setting arbitrary time limits, and let them see you doing what you want them to do. So if you want them to limit mindless use of screens, don’t spend all day checking and/or scrolling social media. Listen to audiobooks while you do housework, use guided meditation apps, and put the phone down when it’s time for bed or to spend time as a family.
This post may be the first time I mention modeling on NerdishMom.com, but it won’t be anywhere near the last. Modeling is the primary tool in a parent’s toolkit. Use it everywhere and use it often to raise your nerdlets into creative, kind, strong, and of course nerdy grown ups.