Raising Non Screen Addicted Kids
The term "screen addiction" is a dubious one. "Addicted to screens?" we ask, scratching our heads. "But screens are everywhere these days." They are so ubiquitous, in fact, we often take them for granted, weaving them as naturally into our parenting as we do in every other facet of our lives. We often fall back on the wise old adage that kids these days don't know what life is like without technology, but the truth is that today's new parents don't know what parenting is like without technology either. When we're bored or uncomfortable we often pull out our smartphones and scroll through social media, or we turn on a show on our television. Doing this for our children seems like a natural extension of our own behaviors. But the main difference is that most adults these days can at least remember life before smartphones and tablets. But what does a generation of adults look like who have been raised on screens?
Unfortunately, like many technological advances that no doubt improve our lives, there are also many unforeseen negative consequences. Jenny Radesky, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician, says that too much screen time, especially from a young age, may be affecting the development of children's brains. What's more, screens may be fast replacing the kinds of familial bonds and hands-on parenting that was once taken for granted. For example, replacing critical family routines or parenting practices with technology - such as giving a child a screen when they are hurt or upset instead of having a conversation or offering a hug - children may experience an impaired ability to regulate their own emotions. This also disrupts what is called attunement or "serve and return" moments between parent and child, where parents respond to their baby's need for reassurance and connection with smiles, eye contact, or talk. If these crucial early development bonding moments are disrupted (by technology, or anything for that matter) this may have long-term consequences for the child's ability to regulate emotions or bond with other people. There is also research that shows that too much screen time interferes with sleep and eating habits.
Before you start panicking, know that it is possible to raise your kids who are not addicted to screens, and still not be a luddite. But the first question to answer is… what is too much screen time?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends various levels of screen time based on age, especially because excessive screen time too early in life has been associated with cognitive, language and social and emotional delays, most likely because screen time decreases the amount of time the child spends interacting with their parents. For children 18 months and under, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding screen time altogether. Between 18 months and two years, they recommend only high-quality programming and co-viewing. For two to five-year-olds, the recommendation is only one hour of screen time per day. For five-year-olds and above, limit screen time consistently and monitor the media they are consuming.
Before we delve into this any further, it must also be acknowledged that it is futile and probably even unwise to completely keep children away from technology, seeing as how any future job they have will more than likely rely on the use of technology and those self-same screens that we're trying to keep them away from. Sticking with the recommended guidelines above can help introduce children to technology in a developmentally-appropriate way.
The next most important question is… how the heck do I raise a child in the 21st century while trying to limit their screen time???
The honest answer is that it takes work. We live in a world ruled by screens, and screens are very bad for a developing mind, so keeping those little developing minds away from screens is quite the challenge! That being said, here are some tips we've gathered from the experts:
Be a good role model
Firstly, it's best to lead by example. Our children often emulate us, so if we're on our screens all the time in front of them, they will take that as a green light to do the same. And who knows - maybe trying to limit your own screen time for the sake of your child may actually help you too! On the other hand, a sneaky Netflix binge after your child is asleep never hurt anyone...
Find replacement activities
Give babies and toddlers developmentally-appropriate toys instead of screens. For babies, toys with different textures, especially natural textures, are great for little developing minds. As children get older, their imaginations and curiosity will only increase, so why not also increase the variety of the toys and the difficulty of the games? For example, get your kid some Legos with instructions on how to build spaceships or superheroes. This will absorb their attention while improving their spacial skills. Or, if your child shows interest in something specific, like dance, sign them up for lessons! Or take them outside to stoke their curiosity about the natural world. And never turn your nose up at the amazing power of reading! Read to them from a young age to satisfy their curiosity and to instill in them a love of reading. When they're older and learn how to read, this can become yet another activity to replace screen time. It's important to remember that, although we rely on screens a lot today, there are actually a ton of non-screen activities out there.
When you Google "how to avoid screen addiction for kids" or something similar, most articles that come up are about how to break a screen addiction rather than how to prevent it. Trying to intervene when screen addiction is in full swing takes a very firm hand and strict rules. But starting from day one might only require consistent guidelines rather than stuffy rules. As your child gets older and you start weaving in some screen time here and there, make sure they know the rules, and above all, make sure you and your partner know the rules and stick to them. For example, maybe you only allow one video per day before age five, and your child has to ask to watch it with you. If this is the rule from the get-go and it's consistently maintained, your child will see this as natural. Most importantly, if these guidelines are consistent, you might avoid screen addiction altogether!
Be present and patient
This is probably the hardest of the suggestions. Children are basically nothing more than little whirlwinds of energy and curiosity and questions and tantrums. When it all starts to become too much, an iPad can feel like a godsend. But it's important to remember that these difficult times in the beginning will pay off in the long run when you have an intelligent, engaged adolescent who becomes a well-rounded adult (knock on wood). Being present and patient with your little whirlwind will not only keep them off screens, it will instill in them a sense of safety and security, of being loved and cared for, of self-confidence, and it will help them form close relationships with other people in the long term. So, how to be patient and present? This might actually be the most fun part (if you have the energy for it) because you can pretend to be a kid again! Indulge your child in their questions and seek out answers together. Learn dance routines and sing-alongs together. Build forts and go on hikes. Of course we also understand that, while this all sounds very ideal, it can be very hard and exhausting. Do the best you can, but give yourself permission to be tired and to be human.
Rely on other people
When you become too tired, rely on other people instead of devices to take over. "Other people" can be your partner, your friends, your family, your partner's family, or a babysitter, nanny, or daycare.
Don't sweat the small stuff
You can't control everything, and neither should you. If your child is spending the afternoon with their preschool buddy, and their family is more screen-friendly, don't worry about it. If your child brings this up, it's only an opportunity to have a supportive family discussion. And don't stress about breaking your own rules sometimes. For example, if your child wants to know more about dinosaurs, one of the best resources is online videos! Nothing should be so rigid that you can't bend the rules a couple times.
The bottom line is that screens are bad for developing minds, but probably the main reason they have such a negative effect is that screens keep children from interacting with others, including their parents, and this can have dire developmental effects. Although we may not always think so, children want to spend time with their parents. Giving a child a screen instead of interaction when they're feeling playful, or a hug when they're feeling sad only robs them of the parental connection they want so badly. If you think of it this way, screen addiction might not seem like an inevitability, but rather an inadequate substitute for family attunement. The best thing we can do as parents to steer our children away from screen addiction is to try our best to be patient and present, to join them in their creativity and curiosity, and to support them in their interests.