When screen time guidelines meet real life

Screen time can be a touchy, guilt-riddled subject for many parents. Every time we give in to the inevitable “One more episode” request, we start worrying about whether we’re stunting our kids’ social skills or instilling an early couch potato lifestyle. Well, turns out there’s good news and bad news when it comes to screen time for kiddos.

The bad news is that getting loads of screen time has some well-documented negative consequences for kids, including an increased risk of obesity; cognitive, language or social or emotional delays; and poor sleep habits, which have their own knock-on effects. The good news is that child development experts are working to learn more about how screen time affects kids and have developed some (evolving) guidance on how best to manage it.

Last year, the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) put out screen time guidelines for children from about 18 months. It still recommends no screen time, except for video-chat, for kids younger than this age. It also stresses that parents shouldn’t feel pressured to introduce technology early.

For those who do want to introduce some media after 18 months, it recommends no more than an hour of high-quality programming a day (think educational shows like Sesame Street), with an engaged parent co-viewing the content. This advice remains in place until age 6, when it suggests putting limits on the amount of screen time kids get each day and on what types of media they consume. (Previously it advised that children this age get no more than two hours of screen time a day.) The AAP also recommends avoiding fast-paced programs, apps with lots of distracting content, and any violent content.

You can read more about the debate over screen time here. There’s also been a pushback from some experts, who feel there simply isn’t enough reliable research on the matter to make good, informed recommendations on the issue. You can read their statement on it here.

How it translated for us
When Danyaal was little, we followed a fairly conservative “no TV under three” rule even though the official advice from the AAP recommended no TV under two. This was our first kid and we weren’t taking any chances. Since then, the AAP has relaxed its advice, and we’ve relaxed our attitude to TV. (Also known as “what happens when you have another kid”.)

What really pushed us to chill out about the TV thing was actually our paediatrician who, at one of Danyaal’s last scheduled check-ups, told us that we shouldn’t stress about letting him watch some TV, because “they also need to be able to talk to their friends about these things”.

Talk about a lightbulb moment. Children having conversations with people who are not their caregivers was something that had literally not occurred to me until that instant. It suddenly dawned on me that my by-the-book decision on Danyaal’s television viewing was preventing him from having important snack-time conversations with his peers about who was the best Teletubby.

At first, an episode or two was all he got. The kid literally watched the entirety of Cars and Planes in 10-minute segments stretched over several days, with an adult seated beside him. Then we scaled things up a bit until eventually, last year, he was watching 20-30 minutes of TV each day after lunch. (This usually happened during Aniya’s nap. When she eventually started dropping them, they watched together.) But after a serious summer binge, when Sameer and I were both working and the grandparents basically let them watch 2 to 4 hours of TV a day for a couple of weeks, we decided to go on a serious TV purge.

Our rule for 2017 has been that they don’t watch any TV during the week, and they get one slot each on Saturday and Sunday. A slot could be a couple of episodes of RaaRaa the Noisy Lion or Sarah & Duck, an entire film like Cars or Moana, or it could be a half hour of cooperative Lego Jurassic World. But they only get one slot each day of the weekend. So if Danyaal wants to play Xbox, he knows he can’t watch any TV, and if he’s already watched TV, well then he can’t play Xbox that day. Sometimes I can actually see the little wheels turning as he tries to decide what he wants to do in his slot for that day. (Aniya is not particularly invested in TV or Xbox at this point, so she’s happy to go with the flow.)

We aren’t super strict about these things though, and there are exceptions – like when work suddenly comes up on the weekend, or when one of us is sick. And okay, I also made an exception last week when Danyaal was pitifully unwell with the flu. And when we had friends around and needed a few minutes of adult conversation in our open plan living area. And when we went to visit some family. And … You get the point.

We’re not militant about not letting the kids watch TV but at the same time we’re really aware of the fact that binge watching TV shows has a way of creeping up on everyone, adults included. Last summer was proof of that.

So we have those two slots, and we generally try to watch new movies or new episodes of TV shows together with them so we can mediate, commiserate and answer questions. But if they’re watching repeats, we tend to do other things around the house. (And we have zero qualms about letting them watch endless repeats.)

For us, the upsides of limiting their TV viewing are that:

  • it’s become the norm. They don’t really expect much TV so there’s minimal whining when it’s time to put it off. Sure, they’ll try their luck every now and again but usually, there’s isn’t much fuss when their allotted time is over.
  • when they do get extra TV time, they’re super stoked. This really comes in handy if you’re visiting other people with kids or even just taking them to get a hair cut. If the TV is on, they will sit super still and try to lap it all up, because they know they’re getting a freebie.
  • they’re less cranky after. Has anyone else noticed their kids becoming cranky and out of sorts after watching lots of TV?
  • they have more opportunities for boredom, and boredom often leads to creativity. (I’m a big believer in kids being bored at home and I’ll write about it in another post.)

Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about phones and tablets yet and frankly, I’m happy to delay that complication for as long as humanly possible because that is a personal battle that I fight every day and I’m just not ready to fight it on someone else’s behalf at the same time. Meanwhile, I’m trying to keep my existing parental guilt about screen time in check.

Got any tips on how to handle screen time with your big kid or how to split it between kids of different ages? Please do share them in the comments!

Kelly Sikkema

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