We all know what screen time is, right? Parents will definitely know what screen time is, because they hear about it All The Time. “Screen time” is usually preceded with the phrase “too much”. I have never heard any parent say “oh, my child doesn’t get enough screen time”, nor have I ever heard an ‘expert’ lament that children are being starved of it. Screen time, for the uninitiated, is time spent (usually by children) in front of a screen, such as a television, computer, lap top, games console, mobile phone, tablet, etc. The problem is that parents are always being told that their children spend too much time in front of screens. so, let’s look at the myths of screen time.
Myth One. Too much screen time is a new thing. Ummm, no. Ever since the advent of television, parents have been warned about allowing their children to spend ‘too much’ time in front of it. Children for generations have been warned that they will get “square eyes” if they watch too much television. It’s something that I remember hearing as a child [Side note: despite my intensive searching, I never did find someone with square eyes]. If you think guilt tripping parents by telling them their children spend too much time staring at screens is a new thing, I can tell you, it is not.
Myth Two. Parents use screen time as a babysitter all the time. I will agree that parents, generally speaking, use screens as a babysitter some of the time. I actually see nothing wrong with that. Sometimes, parents have to get things done, and it is easier to do that thing quickly if your child is occupied with something else, instead of being under your feet. There is very little that is more frustrating than working outside the home, picking the kids up from school, trying to cook dinner, with a child following you around the kitchen saying “mum, where does wind come from?”, “mum, why am I the youngest child?”, “dad, why is the sky blue?”, “dad, how do you know there are germs if you can’t see them?”….. Sometimes, it is easier to just put the child in front of a screen while you get whatever needs to be done, done. Disclaimer: Putting a young child in front of a screen for hours on end is not a good idea.
Myth Three. Children know that how I do screen time is different to how they do screen time. Children watch their parents very closely, even when you think they are not watching. It is how they learn appropriate behaviour. If you are constantly looking at a screen, you normalise that behaviour for a child. A child does not understand that we might be using our screens to work at home – checking emails, just finishing that report, answering a text message – and how that is different to kids using screens. If you are too busy looking at your screen instead of reading your child a bed time story, they will not only model that behaviour, but they will begin to think that they are not high on your list of priorities.
Myth Four. My child is going to use a tablet/phone anyway, so I might as well give him or her one. I agree that your child is probably going to use a tablet/phone at some point, but that is no reason to give a two year old a tablet to play with. I often hear parents lamenting that their two or three year old screams for the tablet/phone to play with while they are at a café, at a park, visiting friends. My questions are who gave the child a tablet in the first place, so what if they scream if they don’t get it, and who is in charge here?
Myth Five. All screen time is equal. Some screen time is better than other screen time. For example, allowing your child to play a game alone on your phone is probably not as good as you playing a game on the phone together. Apart from monitoring what your child is really looking it, it gives you the opportunity to interact. Sometimes your child might have the television on as background noise while he or she plays in the same room, which is different to passively watching a program. Using a screen to look up a recipe you cook together is different to your child watching cat videos on YouTube (though sometimes we all need to watch cat videos on YouTube). In addition, screen time is only bad if it is replacing what they should be doing instead. Let me give you some examples. If you are home schooling, and your child is using the computer for educational purposes, that’s okay. In these days of social distancing, if your child is using something like FaceTime or Zoom to stay in touch with friends or relatives (given that in current conditions of COVID19 they cannot do that in real life), that’s okay. If your child is aimlessly playing mindless games on a console instead of playing outside, or engaging in role play inside, that’s okay for a short period, but not okay for a long, regular time.
In summary, parents should stop being guilt tripped every time they plonk their child in front of a screen. Sometimes you need something quick, easy, and a proven winner, to occupy your child for a small amount of time. However, giving very young children a screen as a default option is not a good idea. Remember, all things in moderation. While some limited screen time is okay – and the smaller the child, the greater the limit – the majority of time should be used in free play, reading a book, being present in the moment. Use screens to enhance your life, not take over your life.