Portable screens can seem like a godsend to parents. Give the kids a “hit” of your iPhone and bam! The whining, the crying, the tantrums are instantly over. Built-in TVs and iPads seem to have resolved car rides from hell. With a portable screen handy, there’s no need to suffer the nasty glares of annoyed shoppers wondering why we can’t control our kids. Ah, the peace screens can bring! Bliss. Total bliss! And yet, we know that misuse of electronic media devices is hurting our children.
I’m not here to preach for the elimination of electronic media devices. Screens, in and of themselves, are not bad. I’m the first to admit that I don’t think I could live without them. They have become my GPS, my encyclopedia, my research assistant, my editor, my accountant, my recording studio, my DJ, and even my meditation buddy. They have made my life so much easier. However, I know that I need to make a conscious effort to unplug, and it’s not easy.
Kids, just like their parents, can benefit from using screens. Among other things, they have become a convenient source of information to do research for homework and school projects. Now kids can turn to Wikipedia or YouTube to find out almost anything. As with all good things, excess consumption of electronic media can be toxic so moderation is key. It’s also important to consider the motivation and intent behind the use of electronic media. In short, parents must guide children’s media use and help them unplug.
The convenience of screens has turned many children—and many parents (let’s not fool ourselves)—into little addicts. Many of us can’t live without them, and often the glowing rectangles are our go-to solution when our children need distraction. And therein lies the problem.
Many parents have decided to use electronic media devices as babysitters, soothers, peacemakers, rewards and punishments, time killers, and educators . When parents over rely on screens, they have handed their parental responsibilities to teach, play, care, and comfort to computers, TVs, and smartphones.
Over the last 30 years, there have been countless research articles highlighting the risks of misuse and overexposure of children to TV, videogames, and computers. It’s not a question of “if” our kids are being affected, but “how.”
After two decades of working in the mental health profession and forensics, I have seen a long and ugly list of adverse effects related to the overuse of screens: children sexually abusing children, cyber bullying, sensory deficits, school failure, lying, attention issues, hyperactivity, obesity, mood disorders, defiant behaviour, sleep deprivation, addiction, and aggression.
Screens obviously aren’t the only culprits but often when kids are placed on a “media diet,” these problems resolve themselves. They are a key factor over which we have control, and we can no longer plead ignorance.
Parents especially need to guide and control the media consumption of younger children. Toddlers have not developed sufficiently to be able to control themselves and limit their consumption. Kids two and younger should never watch screens. That’s the bottom line.
All this said, we know that computers, tablets, and smartphones are here to stay. We need to teach kids how to use them wisely so that they don’t become hazardous to their mental and physical health.
So now what? What are we supposed to do? Here’s what I suggest:
- Educate yourself about the impact of electronic media on your kids (1, 3, 4, 5, 6). Assess the use of screens in your family and see if you need to make adjustments (for tools: 2, 3).
- Model proper screen use. Don’t let the TV run in the background all day. Put your phone away when you interact with your children. Unless you’re dealing with an emergency or an urgent work matter, most emails, texts, and calls can wait. Select specific times of the day when you will check your phone and try to do it when you are not interacting with your kids.
- Allow the use of devices for schoolwork.
- Don’t use their devices to punish or reward them. Research has proven that punishment does not work (7), and rewards do not teach proper behaviour (8).
- Teach young kids to use crayons, books, paints, playdough, dolls, sticks, Lego, blocks, play structures, etc. Read to them. Encourage them to use their hands (9). These are the best ways to learn.
- Have them play with real toys, and even better, toys that foster creativity and imagination, and cooperation.
- Schedule recreational screen time on selected days, at the same time, and for a limited amount of time. Place it on a calendar for everyone to see. This way your kids will know what to expect. No negotiating. Stick to it and be consistent. If you can, avoid recreational screen use during school days. Don’t allow more than one to two hours per day, even less for the little ones.
- Shut off all screens one to two hours before bedtime to unwind and allow the natural production of melatonin in the brain.
- Have your children be active, play outside, interact with nature and real people.
- Don’t allow kids to be on social media until they are in their later teen years and can understand the impact and responsibilities involved. Before then, they are too young to comprehend.
- Do not leave kids unattended with electronic media. Track their use. Put blockers or filters on and use apps such as Curbi. Don’t forget: there is no substitute for parental supervision.
Our children count on our wisdom and guidance to make them safe and help them to grow into healthy and successful individuals. Children can only learn self-soothing, self- regulation, developmental, intellectual, and interpersonal skills from real people. Children learn these skills through play and real life experimentation. It’s up to parents to lift the screens before our kids’ eyes and help them to see all the other great stuff out there that life has to offer.
- All the American Academy of Pediatrics articles and links on media can be found in one spot: Media Kit: Children and Media (e.g., Media Education (1999); Children, Adolescents, and the Media (2013); Media use by children younger than two years (2011); The impact of social media on children, adolescents, and families (2011) ).
- Media History (2000). American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
- Electronic Screen Syndrome: An Unrecognized Disorder? (2012). V. Dunckley
- Why the iPad is a bigger threat to our children than anyone (2016). S. Palmer
- Gray Matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain (2014). V. Dunckley
- Selected Research on Screen Time and Children (undated). by CCFC
- Punishment Doesn’t Work (2014). Michael Karson.
- The Hidden Downside to Rewarding Your Kids for Good Behavior (2015). Kerri Anne Renzulli
- The Vital Role of Play in Childhood (2003). Joan Almon