I get it. Allowing our kids screen time isn’t just about making the kids happy. Sometimes it makes the adults happy… Sometimes parents just need to take a shower. Prepare the next meal. Take a five minute break from the most difficult job in the world – parenting. Sometimes it’s nice to go potty without little eyes watching us or little hands either getting into something poisonous or grabbing the toilet paper and running with it, redecorating your house with the soft, white paper.
I realize that asking parents to eliminate screen time in this day of age is unrealistic, a recommendation that would be difficult for me to follow as a parent myself. But why should we have parameters on screen time? Research suggests there’s actually several health-related reasons to limit screen time, reasons that could impact children for the rest of their lives. Here are a few of those reasons:
- First and foremost, by setting limits on screen time, you are inadvertently encouraging alternative, healthier activities. Encouraging off-screen time allows your children the opportunity to play, create, and learn. Through these kinds of activities, children learn problem solving and logical thinking skills, develop the creative parts of their brains, gain mastery in fine and gross motor skills, get exercise, and learn pro-social skills. This type of “active” learning is something that can only be attained through “activity.” This is a different kind of learning than the type of learning used while watching an educational video or playing an educational game.
- By limiting screen time, you are protecting your child from exposure to cyberbullying and other unsafe topics of this world. Have you checked your child’s social media? Do you know what your child is accessing on their phones and tablets? I always encourage parents to have the passwords to their children’s accounts so they can check up on the content they’re viewing and see how they are being treated (and how they are treating others) through social media and other apps. By capping the amount of time your kids spend on technology, you cut down on the access they have to dangerous and hurtful content.
- Learning self-regulation skills takes practice. Self-regulation skills include calming down from upset feelings and managing thoughts and behaviors during and after an upsetting event. One of the primary reasons families visit me at the office is for their children to learn positive coping skills or self-regulation skills. If children are constantly relying on screens to distract them from challenges or cope with upsetting feelings, they are not provided the opportunity to develop these lifelong coping and self-regulation skills. Kids need to have skills in place to cope with disappointment even when screens aren’t available to them, such as at school or in other settings, and they have to practice these skills to be able to do use them when it really counts. By learning these skills, your child will be well-equipped for future challenges they may face.
- Screens affect our sleep. Looking at a screen suppresses our sleep hormone – melatonin. Your child’s developing brain is sensitive to the types of lights (such as blue light) that tablets, TVs, computers, phones, and even some lights emit. Do your kids have a hard time winding down at the end of the day? Is bedtime a time of hyperactivity and rambunctiousness, or does your child take a long time to fall asleep? Perhaps turning off the screens and lowering the lights in the home at least an hour (two hours would be ideal!) before bedtime will help them to begin the winding down process. Shutting down screens and lowering the lights triggers the melatonin juices to get flowing, urging children’s bodies to slow down and prepare for sleep.
- Lastly, and most importantly, by limiting screen time, you are creating opportunities for you and your child to connect. Having constant exposure to technology and screen time distracts us from making memories with our kids and from talking with our kids about stuff that really matters. As technology comes between children and parents, it threatens secure attachment. Secure attachment between children and primary caregivers affects children’s mental health, self esteem, confidence, ability to be empathetic, and ability to form healthy relationships in the their futures. Face-to-face activities encourage positive attachment.
When your kids are utilizing screens, I encourage you to watch with them. There have been several young clients who have come to therapy due to fear and anxiety and when digging deeper with them, it is discovered that they have been exposed to something the parents had no knowledge of during unsupervised screen time. By co-viewing with your child, you are able to supervise the content of which they are exposed. You are also available to talk with them about any content which my confuse or frighten them, preventing it from turning into a bigger problem later.
If limiting tech time to only 1-2 hours a day (what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends) seems too difficult a task for your family, try chipping away at the amount of screen time you practice in small doses. Perhaps you can start by just turning off the TV and phones during meal times. Next, tackle screen time before bedtime. Keep going until you reach your goal. Don’t let technology hijack your family’s connection with each other and prevent the opportunity to learn lifelong skills. And if you just need a minute to regroup by using technology as a distraction, take those few minutes and then transition to a different activity together. There is much to be gained and little to be lost by doing this. Your future securely-attached, self-regulated, well-rested, creative, problem-solving kids will thank you. :)