Illustration by David Rosenman

Illustration by David Rosenman

My boys always want it to be screen time. I don’t think that is changing anytime soon. These apps, shows, games, and devices are only getting smarter at capturing their attention.

It feels like there isn’t a giant list of new advice to share regarding “screen time.” But because of the recent media focus and deluge of content on “screen addiction,” coupled with recommendations for dealing with screens while parenting this summer, I’m here with a few responses and observations. It seems to me, parents (all of us) are looking for a couple of things in the content we read about parenting with screens: permission and hacks for simplicity. This post will perhaps offer neither. Until the end.

Most of us acknowledge that not all screens are the same, nor is all programming, nor are the stages of life where apps and screens are enjoyed (infants versus an 8 year-old). “Screen time” is an issue layered with complexity. Parenting during this explosive device development era demands simple rules and dictums for limiting their use help, but the rules by themselves limit the development of full-on zealots. No one follows the rules like religion. Parents, grandparents and caregivers aren’t devout to recommendations because we claim the rules just don’t fit into the context of our lives. Most of us figure out a way to make justifiable exceptions. It’s simply too easy to pull out your phone, especially when it delights your child the way it does, and entertain. But no question that with the rules out there stressing non-use and limits, we’re left feeling a little guilty anytime we left our children indulge. Imagine knowing that screens before bed interfere with the “sleep hormone” melatonin (the light emitted from the screen limits secretion) but even so still choosing to let your children “chill out” with a video for a 1/2 hour before bed each night. Or imagine following the no-screen-time-before-age 2 religiously for your first child but then breaking this rule routinely when you have a second one! This just happens all the time. Read Why No TV Before Bed Is Better.

It’s imperative that while we focus on what is being offered to children when we give them a screen to view that we also focus on what activities or human interactions are being displaced when we do. It’s not just what children see on screens that matters, it’s what they miss out on in other parts of their life, too.

Major news outlets have covered the issue this past month (modeling better use of screens, on screen addiction, on preventing screen addiction in babies, etc). I’m unsure the reason for the sudden widespread focus but part of me thinks it stems at least in tiny part to an opinion by economist Emily Oster published 6 weeks ago where she proclaimed, “‘Screen Time May Be Okay For Kids.” I’ve observed personal, social and traditional media responses publicly on this issue since and I’ve been privy to expert and pediatric communication privately on the topic.

A Couple Observations About Screen Time

  1. We don’t have robust data that screens benefit babies or help prepare them for a better or happier life. This is true even for apps advertised for learning and for interactive ones. It’s easy to criticize passive media viewing (AKA plopping your baby in front of the TV while you prep dinner) but less is known about interactive content. There is however, data that human interaction, bonding, early reading from birth, and interactive play do help babies thrive. So as evidence suggests, TV viewing and an electronic babysitter earlier in life may change executive function, the way a child expects the pace of life to move, and their skills in interaction. Many parents are looking for permission here — to have their infants watch TV, hold the iPhone, play with apps, and view videos. Most parents also smartly want a guide, an acceptable amount of time for babies and screens. There just isn’t yet a scientific response to the ask. Even Dr. Dimitri Christakis, in his 2014 pithy piece about rethinking the guidelines for interactive media under age 2 agrees. In my mind, we’re still at the point where the responsible thing for us to say is: less is more and beyond that we just don’t know. Bottom line: strictly limiting media, even interactive media, for babies is still a must in my opinion.
  2. Research has a challenge keeping pace. With the rapid pace of technologic expansion for tools marketed and used by parents but also infants and children, the research community hasn’t been able to keep up. That being said there are some great parent resources for gaining understanding about content selection (i.e. Common Sense Media). Educational content is better and rating systems can help us make good decisions (a 4 year-old’s brain on cartoons). I like the content better on PBS than the content on Nickelodeon. I like content viewed on-demand over live TV because of the minimized advertising. If your child uses apps or plays games it will always be better when they’re playing with others in your home and you’re following along.
  3. Engagement will only improve: Be smart about how you set expectations for children now, the allure of these devices will only increase in our children’s lifetimes. Smartphones, tablets, smart e-books, televisions and computer have profound capacity to take our child’s attention, hold it, and delight them. We know there are neurological responses in the brain to these activities. For typically developing young children we don’t have data that tells us using these makes our children smarter or primes our children for something better. And for older children, we do have data that they are continuing to consume screens at a wild pace. We have to help our children have great self-regulated tactics with compartmentalization (confine media to certain times of day) which will save us from the displacement issue. We simply don’t want to displace certain things in our life because media grabs and steals attention so easy. For each family the most valuable activities are different. A media diet should consist of time limits, content restrictions, and a family who all plays by same rules.
  4. Displaced activities: Use screens when competing opportunities are not ideal and at times that preserve your child’s health. Here’s my quick tips about regulation:

Children Can Regulate Screen Time, Let Them Practice:

  • Get the screens out of the bedroom for all children and teens as we know screens interfere and detract from sleep. Smaller screens have worse effects on sleep. Have devices sleep in common area or kitchen. This should be for everyone at home. Read: Sleeping With A Smartphone.
  • Use screens as devices of privilege when used for entertainment. Your child earns time on the screen after good behavior or homework or chores. This should start in toddlerhood. Set this expectation early and it won’t seem a foreign concept.
  • Use screens when other activities are limited like on the plane, in the car, as a distraction during a stressful event like a doctor’s appointment or waiting in line.
  • Don’t ever use screens at the breakfast or dinner table and make it a rule for every single living being in your home. We’ve mastered dinner without fail but we’re working on breakfast when I’m the one who has a tendency to jump on my device. Displacing precious time at the table before a big day is dismal…
  • Don’t ever use screens while driving. I ask kids in clinic all the time if the people who drive them use their phones and screens. I often get an immediate “Yes!” Clearly we can all protect ourselves and our families better.

No question, this is gonna take practice.  No reason not to start now.