5 Years of Digital Parenting — part two: “Screentime”

Ok, in this first follow up post I’m going to talk some more about screens and what is widely referred to as “screentime”. As I mentioned in the previous post, our approach has been to not limit our kids’ screen time but to pay attention to what content they consume and be involved in their play whether it involves a screen or not. We will occasionally limit the amount of time they stay sat down or indoors, but only if it really has been hours — generally speaking if they want to play on an iPad all morning, that’s fine, although in truth they rarely get more than 3 or 4 hours at a stretch indoors at home anyway, with nursery and school and family activities at weekends.

I should also point out that we are talking about parenting young children. Our two are 4 and 6 years old — we know we are going to have to adapt our approach when they get older. We will have to navigate bedroom use of devices, phone ownership, social media and all sorts of other things. In the meantime though — this has worked well for our kids from age nothing to where we are now.

Our first point of focus is not to elevate screens to a privileged position in our household. Given the attraction they represent, if we strictly limited their use they would very quickly become flash points — sources of great anxiety and conflict within our household. I think this is often overlooked when people evaluate the risks that children are exposed to. This is not to say that our parenting style is laissez-faire at all — we are extremely conscious of the need to establish healthy routines, to set clear expectations of behaviour, and explicitly communicate time-based transitions so our kids understand what is changing and why. We are very strict about these things. In addition to this though, we try to reduce flash-points if we can — we turn difficult things into games, or minimise the risks associated with some behaviours, while permitting them ‘in essence’, in order to reduce the potential for unnecessary conflict.

Secondly, I think it’s essential to model good behaviour: kids will always do what you do, not what you say. If you want your kids to brush their teeth, then brush your own teeth with them. If you want kids to read, then read yourself and read to them to show them that reading is something that people do, and that books are full of exciting stories that they will want to know about. If you tell kids not to look at screens, and you spend all day looking at screens yourself (whether in front of them or at work), then you are a hypocrite and your kids will likely be confused and then resentful. Clearly, we should be trying to avoid this at all costs.

Thirdly, as far as I can tell, there is no evidence that the screens themselves cause any harm. I think everyone from my generation remembers our parents warning us about excessive television watching, or sitting too close. I’ve never seen anyone with square eyes, and we now all use screens a a great deal of the time. I don’t think screen watching in and of itself represents a significant public health issue.

There is research that suggests that very young children don’t engage with screen-based content in the same way that they do with real-life interactions, and that this might affect their learning as their brains develop at this early stage. This is what the American Academy of Pediatrics base their oft-cited advice on:

“Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.”

My issue with this advice is that it gives the impression that the screens themselves are harmful, when in fact the danger is substituting human interaction for screens. Well the same is true if you substituted human interaction for a ball pit, or a VTech activity walker, or *anything* that is not a human being actually interacting with a young child.

This is not to say that there are not correlations — high amounts of ‘screen-time’ have been associated with several detrimental attributes, including obesity, behavioural problems and emotional well-being. However, correlation is not causation, and, as a recent article in New Scientist points out, screen-time is far too blunt a measure to draw any proper conclusions from. It’s the content that counts.

All of this aside, however, I think there is another reason to take this approach that puts all the others in the shade. And it’s this: the healthiest relationship that kids or anyone can have with technology is just for it to be ubiquitous — there when they want to use it, but not something they obsess over. Just another thing. No matter how attractive touchscreens are to young kids — they will get bored of them eventually, and so, as long as they are living full, engaged lives with plenty of exercise, fresh air, social interaction and lots of fun and play, then let them explore what the devices offer until they get bored. It’s natural for kids to go into obsessive periods of engagement and learning, when they will not want to do anything else but play this one game, or watch this one TV series, or go out and ride their bike whatever the weather. This is great! They will learn everything there is to know about that thing until it doesn’t hold any more mysteries for them and they will spontaneously move on to another thing. It’s good to let these obsessions play themselves out. Of course, touchscreen devices, like TVs and books, are multi-functional objects, and the content always changes and re-engages, but even so, I’m convinced that no matter how compelling they are, how magically they hold the attention of little eyes and fingers, eventually they become no more amazing than anything else, and then their supposedly harmful power is gone. Annihilated by a child’s perception of the mundane.

And so, I have this to report: Back in April or so, I came home from work to discover that the family iPad, which had been in daily use for years, had notifications on the lock screens that indicated that nobody had unlocked it in more than three days. And it hasn’t been hidden under papers of magazines, or out of power — it had been plugged in where it always is, in the lounge, available for anyone to use whenever they want to. Yet neither of the kids had done anything with it for three days. This may not sound like much, but to me it’s hugely significant. It means now, finally, at the ages of 4 and 6, touchscreens are just part of the landscape — no more important than anything else they love doing and playing. And it wasn’t an aberration. I quite often now find it with notifications showing it has been unused for a while. It means the boys are interested in other things just now.

And sometimes the iPad just gets forgotten about…

(Vintage TV Image by Marcin Wichary)

Originally published at appyfamilies.net in 2014.