Growing up, I don't really recall having limits on screen time. And educational apps didn't yet exist. I watched hours of television after school – General Hospital, Little House On The Prairie, Roseanne, and You Can't Do That on Television. I can still sing jingles for commercials from breakfast cereal to refreshing bars of soap. I played Super Mario Brothers and Tetris on Nintendo until my brain hurt…and I turned out OK, right?
Well, in my early days of early days of parenting, I knew better. I was clear about my plan for our kids and screen time – NO TV (or any screen, for that matter) – until they turned seven. Apparently that's when screen time wouldn't ruin their brains…as much.
Then, when my first-born was almost three, I got pregnant and was side-swiped with morning sickness. I could barely lift my head off my pillow, and plopping my son in front of “Bob the Builder” on a laptop seemed like the smartest option for survival.
From there, Pandora's box was open. Kid #2 definitely had screen time far younger than her big brother. It's not like my kids are glued to a screen 24/7 – we don't even have a traditional television – but, we freely use streaming kids' shows and educational apps on iPads so my husband and I can savor a bit more sleep in the morning, capitalize on windows of uninterrupted work time, or steal much-needed afternoon breaks.
Are they watching too much?
Technology is ubiquitous. As much as we may wish for simpler times, it isn't going anywhere. At the same time, I often hear how screen time for children is evil. And that less is always better.
In light of this, it can be tough to figure out how much is too much. Am I ruining my kids' childhood? Or worse, derailing their development?
The damage done by screens
You might think that screens rot your kid's brain and stifle creativity.
For example, according to the Rudolf Steiner, the first seven years are an important time for your child to learn through physical experience. This is why Waldorf schools are so strict about limiting media exposure to students in these early years. And it's why they favor hands on play.
A recent study concluded that screen time actually stunts development in the parts of a child's brain that comes up with creative ideas. It also over-stimulates the part of the brain that processes images while offering less stimulation to other areas.
Other studies suggest that there is a link between screen time and behavioral and learning difficulties in children. The entertaining, yet hypnotic effects of watching a moving screen slows development of neural pathways. This can lead to attention deficit and sleep disorders. Especially in kids under the age of three. While there is no definite evidence that screen time directly causes ADHD, too much can certainly exacerbate symptoms.
Finally, according to some folks, kids today don't know how to build tree forts, chase butterflies, or have fun with a stick. They have trouble figuring out how to get along with their peers in a non-structured environment. It seems that kids who spend too much time in front of a screen shy away from the the natural world. As a result, they do not know how to explore or protect themselves from little dangers. This disconnect also stops kids from appreciating the solitude and wonder of nature itself.
Why there's a place for screens and educational apps
You can probably see why the early-parent version of myself was determined to skip screens for my kids.
Jump to present day with a seven year old and three year old… My kids do consume visual media on laptops, iPads, and iPhones on a daily basis. Despite all of the flashing warnings, why haven't we ditched the screens?
#1 – We get much needed-down time
The arguments that screen time leads to childhood obesity don't really have much bearing for me: television is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to weight problems with today's kids. Nor do I heed the counter-arguments that kids need a screen to understand pop-culture to ‘fit in.' Whether or not they know about Power Rangers or Beyonce isn't going to make or break their social standing.
Probably the biggest benefit we get are much-needed breaks.
Whether it's bonding over our weekly family movie night or relishing the extra precious minutes of sleep while our little ones are up and buzzing around the house before 7am, my bloke and I crave the downtime media provides.
In a world of go-go-go where we work hard, as long as we move our bodies plenty, having time for our brains to unplug can actually be a very a good thing.
#2 – Technology is awesome, embrace it
I mean, have you seen what phones, tablets, and computers can do these days? It's pretty amazing. Whether my daughter is playing barbershop, my son is building societies, or I am merely browsing the vast library of streaming movies on the internet, I am constantly in awe of all of the cool things you can do on a little device.
I use my phone to keep track of my daily exercise, listen to more books than I would ever have time to read in paper, find restaurants, connect with distant friends, and do exercises to fix the numbers part of my brain that seems to have shriveled with motherhood.
And let's face it, children seem to be born with an innate sense about technology. So much so that my daughter, at the age of two, was trying to figure out why a paper picture book didn't operate with intuitive finger swipes and taps.
While toddlers and tech may not be the best match, after a certain age a natural propensity for technological brilliance in kids should definitely be nurtured. Fluency in technology as a child may certainly give your child an advantage when he or she becomes an adult, so if your kid is determined to be the next innovative video game programmer or graphic designer – you may want to let her explore her interests.
Show your kids balance between technology and nature
Thankfully, most of the negative side effects of screens are caused by watching more than 3 hours of television per day. In my house, we've found that even less than this can leave our small humans strung out, cranky, and disconnected. All of which negatively impacts their sleep and the overall sense of well-being for our whole family.
About six months ago when we chose to cut our seven year old's streaming shows and MineCraft play in favor of using the iPad to listen to stories, he almost immediately became more calm and engaged. He now devours literary classics like Peter Pan, Narnia, and The Wizard of Oz.
In addition to countless books, there are hundreds of educational apps that can teach kids how to read, do math, learn to play music, and work through puzzles. In fact, teachers in Switzerland are having great success using iPads in the classroom to create videos, take notes, and problem solve.
Enthusiasm for learning should never be squashed.
Since kids are often more interested in learning on a mobile device than other traditional methods, it makes more sense to go with the flow. Our homeschooler was super resistant to learning spelling until we recently introduced an education app for spelling. Now he “plays” at spelling…a win-win for us.
Our conclusion: Screen time limits are not black and white.
Each child will have her own right amount of time in front of screen. Based on his or her age, lifestyle, mood, and the particular day. While it may seem like a no-brainer, keep an eye on what your kids are watching and playing, and be sure to balance screen time with plenty of outdoor time, exploration in nature, and physical activity.
At the end of the day, we are all tiny players in the fast and grand human experiment of technology. Will it be our ultimate destruction or propel us to unimaginable greatness? Only time will tell. But for now, when embraced with an intention of curiosity, fun, and flexibility, a bit of screen time may be just what your family needs.