Quite often we’ve been asked how our 4 year old is screen “addiction” free in this day and age. So often that I figured it’s worth a blog. With all my fingers and all my toes crossed, I’m here to share what worked for us. For as parents know, say it loud and kids will prove you wrong!
First let me clarify what I mean by screen addiction free. We get through most days without any screen-time whatsoever. On days we have screen-time it is limited to 20 mins or less. We do not however believe in blocking technology altogether and allow our son to “do office work” :-) on our laptops (but that counts towards screen-time). We also freely use online videos to feed his endless curiosity about the world around him (again, screen-time). As I discovered recently, this (as well as our approach to get to this) is in line with the latest recommendation by American Academy of Paediatrics on media usage in children.
The idea is to find the right balance, and always always be in control of the what, when, where and how much.
Let me also state the obvious: this has been *very* hard to do. Keeping kids off devices requires huge amounts of mind space, physical energy and will power. All of which are sometimes a luxury, a privilege. I acknowledge that and have sympathy for parents who wish to take this path but are unable to. I know they are doing the best they can. Perhaps this blog gives them new ideas to go try on this front.
Here are few strategies that helped us create the right patterns:
- Kids do as you do, not as you say. We never watched TV in front of him, when we had one that is! Now we don’t even have a TV at home and don’t miss it. No tablet/iPad either. We do binge watch Netflix on our laptops, but after he’s asleep.
- Ask for help. Lots of it. When you’re exhausted or need to get stuff done, it helps if the fallback is another person not a device. So when available, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nannies were all relied upon. Fun fact: having different caregivers also provides the much needed variety to keep a curious young one entertained!
- Early efforts pay off later. For the first two years, we absolutely did not allow any screen exposure. To compensate, I would learn rhymes with actions and do highly animated sing-along routines for him! We also played music and danced a lot, bhangra being his favourite. We ran around the house, made cardboard tunnels, read books and rotated toys every few weeks to keep things fresh and interesting. You get the idea.
- Slow release. At age 2, we made some exceptions with guardrails around them. Videos were to be selected by the adult-in-charge and screen time was not to exceed 20 mins/day. We were still able to go days without any screen time.
- Give up control, in a controlled manner. At age 3, we created a “one-video-per-day” rule, with different guardrails — He has to ask to watch! (For a long time he would ask for a video first thing in the morning while still in bed and we had to oblige… with a real fear that things were going out of control.) He is allowed to pick a “topic” — say superheroes, or airplanes or animals — but WE get to select the video (no games, no autoplay). Since there is no TV or tablet, it is usually on our phones and we are able to control the duration/access to the device. We still go days without him asking for any screen time. The cutest is when he asks “mumma, did I watch my one-video-per-day today?”! :-)
- When all bets are off, don’t bet! When in environments we can’t control, we don’t control him either. At restaurants he loves watching the games, with other kids he watches disney movies and so on. This has created patterns in his head around what he can watch, on which device, where. For example he doesn’t realise he can watch movies on our laptops. I’m sure this will change in time, but for now, it’s great!
- Screen-time is entertainment, not a distraction. We do follow a strict policy of no screen-time during meals. Broken only once or twice when he was really sick. This has been a hardest to do.
- Never say never. This is something the grandparents insisted we do, for living out desires is one way to kill them (apparently!). So all of the above rules were broken at some point, in moderation. Fun fact: we also follow this policy for sweet treats — there is always candy or chocolate at home and we rarely say NO when he asks for one — turns out he doesn’t ask for it as much!
The Struggle Is Real
All this sounds reasonable and doable, then why do parents struggle (I’ve only ever seen non-parents ask this question!). Because all this comes at costs. Duh! Engaging a child’s intense curiosity and infinite energy all day long is exhausting. Top that with having to get through “chores” like eating, getting dressed etc with an uncooperative tantrum throwing toddler and no handy distractions and you’ll have no energy left for anything else even when you have the time!
Needless to say, the individual you suffers, relationships suffer, todo lists suffer, social life suffers; in a big way if not entirely; in the short term.
For example, in our case, whoever is with him can do NOTHING ELSE. No other conversation, no parallel processing of emails or work or reading, nothing. (Now that he’s older and able to sit still longer we are working on fixing this and have had success in small random bursts.)
The first two years required one of us to be actively engaged and patiently present at all times, even with help around (yes, babies are hard work). In our case, this was me and that literally meant everything I wanted for myself took a backseat. Note: this was my choice my reality, if you’re able to be present and peaceful for your child while charging ahead on various other fronts, by all means, proceed!
Another downside has been how easily he gets overwhelmed in chaotic/loud environments or how quickly he’s overstimulated by audio-visual entertainment. Social events or settings where other kids are overdosing on screen time or long flights with multiple screens flashing have been challenging. (Again, this is getting better as he spends more time in such settings).
To conclude, it’s been hard, but definitely doable and so worth it. In fact, nowadays I am more worried about our screen time addiction than his! Of course things will change as he grows older but for now our home is filled with conversations (nonstop at times) and fun! We’re curious and learning and playing and laughing, together.
Resources For Parents
Addiction is a strong word. To be called addicted to something one would have a strong physical or mental dependence on it, progressively require it in increasing quantities and show adverse effects when it is denied. Most kids I know are not addicted to technology in such ways. But many kids I know do need screen time to get through routine daily activities and exhibit disruptive behaviors when it is denied. Most parents will agree this is not ideal, and can lead to addiction if left unchecked. Early intervention is key and doable.
If you’re still not sure why screen time is bad for children or whether your child is screen-time addicted or how to help them out of it, these resources might help:
- Does your child have a Technology addiction (Child Psychology Blog)
- It’s not a drug but it may as well be (from Truth about Tech conference)
- How much screen-time are kids really getting nowadays (JAMA paper)
- American Paediatrics Association recommendations for media usage
- Books/Research Recommendations (Physicians for Safe Tech Blog)
- Counter-view and comparison to real addiction (Myths of Tech Addiction)