There are a lot of positives about the technology available to our children today – the potential to learn new skills and interact online. Our children need technology – they need to understand it or they will be ill-equipped to face the future they will find themselves in. Our gut instinct and common sense tell us however that screen time needs boundaries and limits, and this is backed up by research. We need to wise up about screen time so we can allow our children to enjoy the advantages of gadgets, while acknowledging the challenges and safeguarding them against the risks. As with all aspects of parenting, you can’t just cruise along and deal with problems once they have manifested themselves. You have to anticipate them and where age appropriate, communicate with your children about them and agree acceptable household rules.
There isn’t a hard and fast rule about the actual quantity of time children should spend with screens other than that this should be zero for the under twos. The Parent Practice states that a better way to think about the amount of time you want to allow them screens, is to think about all the other things you want them to do – be that ballet, piano, running around outside, cleaning the hamster cage, walking the dog, homework, story time, meal-times, conversation, sleep and just getting bored (the latter is very important and the subject of a future post) – and then look at how much time is left. This will not be comforting news for many modern parents, but the brilliant late Steve Jobs and indeed most of the forward thinking tech experts in California don’t allow their own children the devices they know so much about.
Content really affects behaviour, even when it is age appropriate. There are multiple studies out there monitoring children’s behaviour after being exposed to screen time, particularly computer games which even if they are not overtly violent (and many are), are aggressive or at the least, highly competitive. Age limits are there for a reason – stick to them, but don’t completely rely on official ratings: watch films before your children or at least with them if you are concerned. There are a lot of online resources available which have consumer ratings and other guidelines. I like www.comonsensemedia.org and www.internetmatters.org. Other than being aware of violence and ratings, I think through whether the content is something I am happy for my children to be exposed to. For example, Peppa Pig has a very positive tone of voice and contains characters, life experiences and relationships that I am happy for my young children to be exposed to.
The most important thing is that you THINK about what kind of screen rules you want in your household, discuss them with your children and stick to them. For as long as possible, try to restrict screens and gadgets to communal areas of the house – maybe even one room, and always have no-go zones which should include bedrooms and mealtimes. Mealtimes are the best opportunity to talk and share and be interested in eachother, as well as set a standard of manners and values. This is all totally undermined by phones and tablets. We are as guilty as our children here. Never forget that what you do will always speak so much more loudly than what you say (the principle of behaviour modelling). Do you want your children to feel subjugated to devices and themselves grow up thinking phones are more important than real family communication? Unless you really have to, don’t start your own digital day until they have left for school. As to bedrooms, the National Sleep Foundation recommends no screen time in the last two hours before sleep, as blue light emissions release cortisol – a stimulating neurotransmitter which counteracts the melatonin that is trying to help us fall asleep. Even if you can fall asleep while watching TV or surfing Instagram, your sleep quality will be affected.
Beyond screen time, don’t forget other aspects of parenting in this digital world. I’m so pleased my own teenage years are lost to humanity – these days with smart phone cameras and social media, teaching your children to protect their own digital footprint and future reputation is crucial. Even more important is addressing the risks of online bullying and exploitation. These deserve their own blogs at some stage. Life was a lot simpler when orange, blackberry and apple were just fruit. Remember to unplug every day, and to disconnect with technology and reconnect with each other.