The "Recommended" Screen Time for My Child: Is There a Best Practice?
Kristy Goodwin joined us in 2020 to discuss the controversial, age-old question: screen time for children. Read on to hear how Kristy manages screen time, the pros and cons, and how to use this time effectively.
“What screentime is your baby having?”
This question was asked as part of the six-monthly pediatric check-up of Kristy Goodwin’s son.
Being asked this way back when the iPad was a year old device was a pleasant surprise for Kristy. She felt that Australia was taking a positive step forward and talking to parents about screen time.
The clinic nurse continued explaining how her son would fall behind at six months of age if she didn’t provide him with screen time to learn basic concepts, nursery rhymes, or even Baby Einstein. This raised a red flag in Kristy’s mind.
“Babies need laps, not apps”
After 14 years in a classroom, Kristy was at that point in time researching the impact of technology on children’s learning - cognition, physical development, and mental well-being. She was astounded.
She immediately knew that this information given to her by the nurse was incorrect. Kristy went home that day, while her baby slept, and started a social media campaign “Babies need laps, not apps.” It went viral.
Kristy then decided to write a book that would help parents navigate the digital terrain. Her goal was to address the universal dilemma of too much screen time that every parent was facing.
She was motivated by her unique position linking academia and the real world to take on this challenge. Her work was governed by science and data but it had to also resonate with her heart, mind, and values.
Demonizing Screen Time: We All Do It
The media sensationalizes the excessive and inappropriate screen time that children get exposed to. However, we must realize that “screen time” is not the operative word in this equation.
The reality is, whether we love it or not, technology is here to stay.
The recent pandemic changed the way we socialize, learn, work, and are entertained. Technology is and will remain an integral part of the lives of our children and digital amputation is not a solution.
As Kristy puts it - “It is about tapping into the positive potential and at the same time, mitigating the potential pitfalls that it also poses. And the only way kids can do that is by actually having exposure and using technology.”
How to Harness the Power of Screen Time
When we zoom out, we see that screen time is only one part of the bigger picture.
In order for children to use technology effectively as a tool, we need to pay attention to the other components that constitute their usage.
As parents, we should reference the recommended screen time for children against the type of activity being engaged in. For example, leisure or learning, the mode of consumption - active (creation) or passive (consumption) - the time of consumption in the day, and its corresponding psychological impact.
Also, we need to think about the physical space of consumption. Are children having screen time within the house or outside? What are the impacts on hearing, vision, and physical well-being? Whether it is being consumed mindfully or as default? Most importantly what is the opportunity cost of that screen time - is it being used to fill the vacuum when a developmental need of the child goes unmet?
Unfortunately, our media does not take into account these parameters of screen time for children. We are constantly bombarded with the “doom and gloom” of screen time but forget about the positive benefits.
Looking at Screen time through “The Glass Jar”
Parents often limit screen time without looking at the science and data. So how can we understand what responsible screen time use looks like?
Let us borrow The Glass Jar analogy from productivity expert Steven Covey. The basic developmental needs of our children go into the jar as rocks. Children need relationships, language, physical movement, good quality nutrition, and they need opportunities to develop executive function skills.
Relationships give kids opportunities to create connections to make sense of who they are in this world. And having positive social relationships develop a sense of belonging and significance.
Language is an incredibly important need to fulfill. Giving children much language exposure will develop their ability to communicate. It is about talking with your children, not to them. Provide opportunities to listen and practice language skills.
Physical movement has many effects on our body to keep it happy and healthy and good quality nutrition goes hand in hand with this. Having the right balance of both is important for our health.
Studies show that executive function skills and self-regulation skills are important for children to learn and develop. They also enable positive behavior and allow us to make healthy choices.
Once these needs are met on a regular basis, then, as Kristy Goodwin puts it, parents do not need to “frame panic that it's (screen time) ruining them or harming or derailing their development.”
It is the space around these rocks that can be filled with some screen time.
In reality, however, some parents empty the jar, take out the rocks, and fill it with screen time.
What happens then is we are dealing with children who don't get enough sleep, have language delays, become aggressive because they don't have self-regulation skills, or are considered obese because they don’t have proper nutrition and spend a lot of sedentary time at home.
The right level of screen time can help children learn, connect socially, and get entertained.
Understanding the Brain to Manage Screen time
As a parent, it is your responsibility to not only meet all the developmental needs of your child but also be in charge of how they use technology.
As a parent, one must set firm boundaries when introducing your child to a device. These conversations must start before your child interacts with a screen. Toddlers, kids, or adolescents should not be given the pester power to push the boundaries.
Children may be quick to grasp and better at using technology…
… but they neither have a fully developed prefrontal cortex that helps in self-regulation nor do they have the experience to understand the negative effects of too much screen time.
Parents need to do due diligence and make informed decisions about what type of content and activities their children are engaging in within their screen time. Parents usually turn to other parents for assistance and may end up with half-baked and unreliable information.
Parents of children below the age of eight must be especially cautious since at that age the child’s brain finds it difficult to differentiate between fiction and reality.
In gameplay, if their fictional character engages in violent behavior and is rewarded for it the child can start to imitate the avatar’s behavior in real life due to mirror neurons. These mirror neurons make it especially important for parents to model the screen time practices they expect from their children.
According to Kristy “the hardest bit, and I say this as a mum and also as a researcher, is being a good digital role model yourself.”
As per social media guidelines, the legal age for children to use social media is 13 years old. This is based on the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act which mandates that an online company can obtain data from children only once they are 13 years old. It doesn’t factor in that children may not be psychologically ready to use social media at that age.
It’s up to your discretion to decide when you feel your child is emotionally ready to navigate the world of social media.
Recommended Screen Time for Children
Prescribed guidelines which are similar across countries, state two hours as the recommended screen time for kids in primary school. Again this is not empirically validated.
Time should not be the only metric when deciding the amount of screen time. Another myth perpetuated by the marketing of apps for children below the age of two is that they are educational. However, there is plenty of research that says that only between the age of 18 to 36 months can the brain start to make meaning and link what’s happening on a two-dimensional screen to the real three-dimensional world.
In order to have a practical solution that works for you and your children, parents must fully understand how technology works.
Screen time is the currency in which the attention economy trades.
Technology is designed to keep you in a stage of insufficiency so that you always seek out more. It is engineered to give you free and constant hits of dopamine that hijack the prefrontal cortex making it tough to regulate your actions. Children are rewarded in virtual worlds and continue to crave the dopamine that comes with it, finding it difficult to unplug.
Parents can apply simple concepts like cognitive priming to implement practical boundaries. This simply means that we cannot expect children to disconnect in the middle of an experience. We should give them an alert that their screen time is about to come to an end. We need to set them up for transition.
Another important thing is to scaffold appealing transition activities. It is unrealistic to expect children to move from an entertaining or leisure activity to something that is tedious like math or boring like tidying their room both of which cannot provide the necessary dopamine and will be met with resistance.
The 3B’s for Managing Screen Time
Realistically parents need to address what Kristy calls 3 B’s - that is setting boundaries with your kids. Beyond the “how much”, take into account other factors mentioned before.
Ensuring that their basic developmental needs are being met and that screen time is not being used as a replacement for any of them. Lastly, encouraging “boredom” means allocating time for your child’s mind to wander and wonder which is essential to build thinking skills.
Humans have brains that evolved during the paleolithic age. They cannot deal with the information overload that takes place by being tethered constantly. We need to have sufficient whitespace to build what neuroscientists term as default thinking.
Ironically technology can serve as a tool to shape how much technology we use. There are many built-in features and additional apps that help us track, monitor, and govern our use of technology.
The greyscale feature which can be applied on social media platforms takes away the charm which makes us scroll mindlessly. Just a snapshot that gives you a breakdown of your screen time is enough to make adults also be more mindful of their screen time and consumption.
There are few other apps that use game mechanics and incentive engineering to regulate your screen time. Kristy recommends the usage of such apps to get in control of our use of technology and limit screen time.
Lastly, Kristy advocates the mindful and active use of technology.
We need to keep our passive leisure consumption to a minimum and make optimal usage of our screen time to build and foster connections, learn what we want from the best instructors across the world, and become part of the growing creator economy.
Children today are digital natives. The screen serves as their window to the world. Through the pandemic, these children may not have shared the same space but they have shared the same pixel, spirit, time, and sound.
Resisting learning through a screen today is like resisting the automation of factories in the 18th century. We are witnessing some of the most amazing teacher-led innovations in the field of education along with the rise of redesigned school models.
Enable your child to make the most of their screen time and choose their own individual empowerment pathway. In this journey, they will meet and collaborate with self-directed learners from all over the world while being guided by supportive mentors.
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