The Great Screen Time Debate

The temptation to interact with screens on a daily basis is inescapable. They are everywhere; in our kitchens, our living rooms, our playrooms and even in our bathrooms and beds. With the convenience of digital streaming programs like Netflix and You Tube and the portability and accessibility of iPads, Smart phones and Smart TVs, we are constantly inundated with images, sounds and a barrage of multimedia distraction. As the digital landscape evolves more and more, parents are left wondering “can this be good for my kids?”

Stats show that the average American child watches more than four hours of TV a day, despite a recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that kids age two and older watch no more than one to two hours daily. For kids under two? The AAP, along with the Canadian Pediatric Society (CPS) recommends watching nothing at all.

Zip, zero, zilch.

Easier said than done right? For parents, screen time is often a welcome distraction, allowing us to get things done that we would otherwise be unable to do with small children around. Heck, it is sometimes just a much needed break! I think we can all admit to using a TV or iPad as a “temporary babysitter” while making dinner, cleaning, showering or catching up on e-mails.

This past June, the Canadian Pediatric Society released new guidelines on screen time, its first new position statement in 14 years for children five and younger. The AAP also reports that children under the age of two gain no intellectual benefit from watching TV, and that watching too much can actually delay language development and cause attention-related problems.

To sum up the CPS’ results, screen time of any kind is still not recommended for children under the age of two, a reaffirmation of a long standing rule of thumb for babies and toddlers. For children between the ages of two and five, the society recommends routine screen time be limited to less than one hour a day and that parents/caregivers watch TV programs or play online games with their kids, rather than leave them to swipe and zone out on their own. The CPA also urges parents to power down their devices during family time and turn off the background TV.

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I admit, I was a sucker for those Baby Einstein DVDs. A huge classical music fan, I thought it wouldn’t hurt for my daughter to sit in her bouncy chair for twenty minutes and watch some puppets dance across the screen to Beethoven’s 5th symphony. However, a research team at the University of Washington found that for every hour per day spent watching baby DVDs and videos, infants learned six to eight fewer new words than babies who never watched the videos at all. Cue the mommy guilt!

With all this rigorous research and finger wagging at parents, how could we possibly allow our children to be “dumbed-down” by the negative effects of screen time?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that playing at the park or engaging with your child one-on-one is more beneficial for a child’s health and development than being sedentary and watching TV. But for some parents, going to the park just isn’t a possibility all the time. There are so many complex factors that govern our lives and limit our abilities as parents that sometimes we just have to “make do”. Whether it is work, accessibility, health issues or other demands, the ever-increasing expectations placed on parents can be overwhelming and sometimes unrealistic. Perhaps when it comes to screen time and our kids, allowing for a little leeway wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Parents today are more engaged than ever with their kids, especially when compared with older generations.

My best advice for you? Use your common sense. Although less is best when it comes to screen time, sometimes it is unavoidable. Is watching an hour or two of TV a day going to intellectually damage your kids? Most likely not. Watching five to six hours a day? Maybe. Just use your best judgment and do what you need to do to survive. At the end of the day, even a little Netflix can go a long way.

Here are some useful tips for surviving screen time in your home!

  • Quality over quantity – Rather than allowing your child to just sit and watch whatever is on, carefully select a personalized, age appropriate, educational program. Choose shows that are engaging, stimulating and intellectual (if accessible). Dora the Explorer, Sesame Street and Team Umi Zoomi are all great!
  • Time is of the essence– Set time limits and stick to them. Use a timer and manage your kids’ expectations of what they are watching and how long for. I recommend avoiding full length movies until your child can actually comprehend what is going on in them and studies show that kids under two cannot understand complex content
  • TV white noise – Try and avoid having the TV on all the time. It shouldn’t be used as “background noise” if possible. Instead, put on some appropriate music and allow kids to fully engage and concentrate on a specific activity, whether you are involved or not. Allowing our kids to focus on imaginative play without distraction is crucial for their creative development
  • Make it a family event – If you can, sit and enjoy some screen time with your kids. Engage with them, put down your phone and ask questions and develop their critical thinking skills. Just put your feet up and enjoy time with them while you can (heck, we all need a break!)

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Picture of Jill Campbell

Author: Jill Campbell

A mother and lover of all things practical, Jill is a 30-something, former educator, world traveler and self-proclaimed pragmatist trying to navigate this journey called life. She currently works as a freelance writer, part-time teacher/tutor and full-time mom to two fabulous daughters. Her blog www.pragmamamma.net features simple and family-friendly recipes, original photography and hot parenting topics. Jill loves getting creative in the kitchen, reading, spending time with her family and snapping photos around her neighbourhood in Burlington, Ontario.

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