As a mother to two young children, and a Psychotherapist my challenge is to balance my learned knowledge and my lived experience. In other words, should I do what the expert child-psychologists suggest or should I follow my own instincts and do what feels right for my family? But that is every parent’s challenge: Should I sleep train? Should I give screen time? Should I breastfeed and for how long? Sign-language? Plastic toys? and the list goes on and on.
The recent debate about giving young children electronics is one that is very close to my heart, and something I manage on a daily basis, and it’s only getting harder. Even in the past five years our children’s exposure to ‘screen time’ has multiplied. When my now 7-year-old son, Dylan was a toddler he loved his Barney DVDs and would ask for them every chance he got. I can remember experiencing some concern with what was clearly an ‘addictive’ behavior – he wanted it when he was upset, it made him feel better, and the cycle was created: feel upset – ask for screen time – get screen time – feel better. I know what you’re thinking, “lots of things make our kids feel better, it doesn’t mean they’re addicted to them”. My response to that is: it kind of does. Much like his soother, or his blankie, the screen time became his crutch. It wasn’t a horrible thing, though as a new mom I was worried, and made sure to ask around and see that I wasn’t the only mom destroying her son’s life at such a tender age. Of course I wasn’t, and as the years passed I got over it and accepted screen time exposure (within limits) as a part of his childhood
Pass forward six years and I am now dealing with the same issue with my one-and-a-half year old, Johanna. But it’s kind of different too. When Dylan was little, we didn’t have iPhones and iPads and those wonderful-I can’t believe they are free-apps for children. And since we are already going there, lets be really honest, when Dylan was little my husband and I weren’t attached to our phones at all hours of the day (and night). The flow of our day wasn’t constantly interrupted by text alert rings, and quick checkins with Facebook and email. It was a different world. Johanna can now turn on the iPad (and iPhone), scroll through the pages, pick her favourite apps, open them and play, take pictures on the camera (with both front and back lens), scroll through pictures (up, down & sideways), go to home page and back page as she chooses, and her latest achievement as of last week is to maximize and minimize picture size (you know, by opening and closing her little hand on the screen). And she’s only one-and-a-half! There is no doubt that her brain is developing slightly different than her brother’s brain and that’s just a 6 year difference. So the question is – is that bad? Well, the answer is Yes, and No, and mostly, It depends.
Yes, it’s bad
- She plays less with her other toys than she would have had she not had access to electronics
- She asks for electronics ALL THE TIME
- She is getting used to quick gratification (“I press here and this super cool thing happens”), which theoretically will make it harder for her to delay gratification (things like saving money, or working hard for an end result). Research (the famous marshmallow study, for example) shows that when a child is able to put off eating a marshmallow for a couple of minutes, he/she is more likely to have a better life outcome (measured by SAT scores, income, professional success, etc).
- She is getting used to super high-stimulation (incredible colours and fast movement) which may make it harder for her to be satisfied with boring, old, low-stimulation life.
- That look in her eye when she knows she is about to get ‘screen time’ is a little scary. She kind of reminds me of a kid on a serious sugar rush.
- She can easily get to things on the iPad that are inappropriate like certain videos on Youtube, images on google, my Facebook account, and FaceTime (think awkward conversations with people you don’t really want to be talking to)
No, it’s not bad
- She is learning the ABCs, colours, shapes, nursery rhymes, and other developmentally appropriate things.
- She can now say ‘iPad’ along with mommy, daddy, daya (for Dylan), and Dora.
- She is learning appropriate skills that are incredibly useful for her high-tech generation, and she is learning them as a second language.
- She feels very accomplished and satisfied with herself.
- She is absolutely incredible on that thing. She can already handle the iPhone better than my dad.
- It can be very helpful during times when I REALLY need her to be entertaining herself while being safe at the same time (i.e. not climbing up on counters).
- She is learning to share and take turns with her brother
- She is learning ownership and differentiation (I am a separate person) by having ‘Johanna shows and games’
It depends (how to keep it healthy)
- Supervise you child when he/she is playing/learning on electronics. Remember the term ‘Developmentally Appropriate’ – it means don’t let your child see/engage with things that they are too young to understand like social media, violence and sex, teenage angst, etc.
- Limit your child’s time on electronics. I could tell you what the experts recommend but i’d rather tell you to trust your instincts and do what feels right for your family.
- Make sure you don’t ALWAYS offer electronics as a reward or for comfort because it will get wired in their brain as such. Always start with emotional and physical comfort and try to engrain in them the skill to comfort themselves. If you do offer electronics for comfort or as a reward use it sparingly.
- Don’t let your child’s electronic use be INSTEAD of other types of play. Make it an addition to other types of play.
- Teach your child proper use of electronics in social situations, and MODEL it.
- Limit the places where your child can use electronics (ie. not at the dinner table). We allow a show at breakfast time (mostly because it’s convenient for me) but never at dinner while we eat as a family.
- Make clear boundaries around electronic use to distinguish it from other play time and keep it in line. You can use words like ‘screen time’ to separate it from ‘play time’, ‘home-work time’, or ‘chill-out time’. Children find comfort when expectations are clear and predictable (even if they fight you on it).
- Calling it ‘screen time’ or ‘electronic time’ will also highlight the fact that all electronics fall into the same category- staring into a screen. It will also make it simpler for you to keep track of their use and worry less.
- Remember that the world is changing rapidly and so are your children. When they are young, your job is to show them proper values and teach them healthy habits. You don’t want to take an extremist stance on electronics because that doesn’t teach them the skills to manage these devices that WILL be a part of their lives (whether you like it or not).
- Children learn from modelling. Put your own phones away every once in a while, and be aware of how you use your electronics in front of them (I’m still working on that one)
- Give your child a variety of experiences, which include but are not limited to electronics.
- Know that you will not scar your child if you pick up your phone (once in a while) during playtime. Of course it is best if they have your full attention, but that’s not always realistic. Just try your best.
- Recent research shows that children either get used to and accept the fact that a parent is distracted by their cell phone or they misbehave to get attention. This is nothing new, though you may have to deal with some shredded toilet paper disasters.
- If you are at the playground and your child is old enough to be playing by themselves safely, it is absolutely ok for you to look at your phone for a few minutes. It’s good to give your child some space so they can feel independent, and it’s good for you to get a break.
- Try having electronic downtime. There is huge benefit in feeling what it’s like to be in electronic withdrawal, and more importantly, to come out victorious on the other side. By the end of the downtime, you will likely begin to enjoy the quietness and slowness of life without electronics, and also grow a greater appreciation of the hook that electronics have on us.
And here she is:)