Digital Health & Well-being

Is screen time really that bad?

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Parents these days get so much advice about what to do and what not to do. I believe the intention – to empower parents – is a noble one, but it can make parenting an overly complex and almost paralysing experience sometimes. It starts early – during pregnancy I was told not to eat so many things that I remember thinking all that was left was McDonald’s and carrot sticks! From when to cut the umbilical cord and what to do with the placenta to Vitamin K shots after birth and how long to breastfeed – there were so many options to consider and decisions to be made. I often thought ‘How am I supposed to know? I’ve never done this before!’

Miraculously I’ve muddled through and so far managed to keep my children alive until the ripe old ages of five and eight. These days the big parenting decisions centre around things like extra-curricular activities, low-sugar diets, technology use and – the classic – screen time.

Technology and screen time are big issues for this parenting generation, and they’re topics we need to think about earlier and earlier. They’re subjects we cover in the Baby and Toddler Toolbox – a Parenting Place course I facilitate for parents of infants and young children under five. Because even though their toddlers might not yet be able to read or write, most of them know how to navigate YouTube on their parents’ phones, operate an iPad and who Peppa Pig is by three years old.

Recently during one of the Toolbox sessions, a parent asked the question “Why is screen time so bad?” He and his wife had different perspectives about how harmful screen time actually is and they were trying to figure out what to do. As he pointed out, he was told as a kid that if he watched too much TV he would develop square eyes (that old scare tactic!), yet he had turned out fine. It led to a really interesting discussion within the group and one that I think was important. Generalisations like ‘screen time is bad’ and ‘technology needs to be avoided as long as possible’ seem to be all over child-raising. This parent was questioning; he didn’t want to blindly just follow the ‘this is bad, don’t do it’ crowd – he wanted to make an informed decision for his child based on facts and deep consideration. I applaud him for doing that because as we all know, it’s really hard to remain strong against a child who is continually asking to play games or watch TV. We spend a lot of time and effort resisting those requests, so I think our decisions should be well considered.

I always find it more helpful to be given ideas for what I can do rather than what I can’t. I don’t like being told ‘No’ (yes, I’m more similar to a two-year-old than I like to admit), so here are some of my thoughts, based on research I’ve done and from that Toolbox discussion we had, about whether screen time is the demon it’s made out to be and what we parents can do about it.

Limits are less to do with what they’re watching during screen time and more to do with the fact that they’re sedentary while they’re doing it

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends no more than one hour of screen time per day for children under three years of age. Interestingly, the reason for this seems to be less to do with what they’re watching during screen time and more to do with the fact that they’re sedentary while they’re doing it.

Brainwave Trust’s article, ‘Tamariki and Technology’ contains great information about content, language development, behaviour, games and apps. One thing I found useful from this article is that live video chatting apps, such as FaceTime, Skype or Zoom, can be a positive thing in young children’s lives, as they ‘have the potential to support the development of relationships between children and whānau’. It seems that active engagement with technology is better for us than passive watching.

Similarly, games can be really social forms of technology use. Today’s kids use online games to connect with their friends. As Tricky Kids author Andrew Fuller writes, video games link into three of the most desired states of childhood:

  1. The ability to have adult-like adventures with minimal adult involvement.
  2. The ability to test yourself
  3. The sense of being in a club of other young people.

As well as brain development, technology use also impacts the eyes and eyesight development. (Click here to read more on this in an article from the Manawatu Guardian.) Optometrists recommend exposing children to more natural light that comes from playing outside. Myopia (short-sightedness) can be developed from staring at screens or from being indoors for extended periods of time. The takeaway here that I found (again, focusing on what we can do rather than what we can’t) is to offer screen time on television or a computer, which tends to be at a further distance away, rather than on a phone or iPad that kids will tend to hold closer to their face. And to intersperse screen time with playtime outside.

Limits are good

What I learnt from WHO, Brainwave Trust and optometrists is that limits are necessary. I know I can’t stop my children from having screen time, and I certainly can’t stop them from wanting it and asking for it (no matter how high my voice gets responding to their pleading!). When I was growing up, limits were externally imposed. My siblings and I had to wait a week until Saturday morning before the ONE episode of my favorite cartoon was on, and then it was interrupted by ads every seven minutes! Now, our kids have a never-ending choice of cartoons to choose from on Netflix, and so do we. The closest thing we come to an external limit is the helpful reminder ‘are you still watching’ after we’ve binged four episodes in a row. It’s up to us as parents to decide on how much, in our family, we are comfortable with, and enforce those limits.

Also, remember that limits should expand as your kids grow. The limit you set with a five-year-old will probably need to be reviewed and changed as he or she grows older.

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Alternatives to screen time

I’m a big fan of audiobooks. I picked up an old-school CD player from our local market for $10 and my kids love listening to CDs borrowed from the library on it. (I’ve also introduced them to the Spice Girls and other 90s bands I still have on CD – compulsory music history lesson!) We also listen to stories through Audible and podcasts. Audiobooks and podcasts are great substitutions for screen time in the car and for before bedtime for kids who take a while to get to sleep. And of course, good old-fashioned reading never goes out of style!

Tips for when screen time needs to end

Screen time releases feel-good hormones. I liken turning off the television when the kids are watching it to taking a coffee away from me when I’m only halfway through – the result is rarely pleasant. Two things that work for us is giving a five-minute warning before turning-off time, and having an activity ready for afterwards that’s distracting and enjoyable. Usually this involves food or going out somewhere.

Parenting isn’t black and white. There’s no one-size-fits-all and there aren’t a hard and fast set of rules that every family can apply equally. How much access you want to give your children to screen time within your home is worth thinking about. It isn’t all bad, and its part of growing up in today’s world. Listen to your instincts, consider the pros and cons, decide on your family’s values and how technology use fits in to them. Then you can confidently set limits on technology use with your children. Now go have a cuppa and get back to that show on Netflix.

Keryn Grogan

Keryn Grogan

Keryn is a mum of two, a self-confessed all-rounder (and recovering perfectionist). Keryn enjoys reading, painting, and music. She is currently studying Te Reo Māori through Te Wānanga o Aotearoa and is a Toolbox facilitator. Above all else she considers parenting her full-time and most fulfilling past time, and loves sharing her everyday experiences of it through writing.

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