Balancing Screen Time In the Post‑Toddler Years
Children’s use of technology is a fine line for parents to tread. Research is clear that before the age of 2, children should not be exposed to screens in order to engage with their environment in a way that promotes strong development; at this age, screen time can actually impair cognition in a lasting way.
But in the years beyond toddlerhood, from 2 onward, screen time is less prohibited and can, in certain ways, benefit children at this age – the trick is finding the right amount, the right content and the right way of engaging.
The right amount of screen time
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends less than one to two hours of screen time each day for children aged 2 years and older. I would go a step further and recommend as little daily screen time for kids as possible, and in short bursts of 20 to 30 minutes per sitting. This introduces kids to the idea that using technology is like colouring, or any other activity with a beginning and ending, and prevents them from being sedentary for too long.
(It’s important to note that any media playing on a screen in the background while your child does another activity still counts in this daily amount; even if a child is playing with his blocks and is not looking at the screen, his play is distracted and not as complex as it would be otherwise.)
These limits can be strengthened further by rules like putting away all gadgets at least 30 minutes before bedtime and not allowing devices in the bedroom. If your child’s bedroom has a television, you might want to consider removing it; the blue light from screens, big or small, has been shown to negatively affect sleep. Establishing new rituals, like reading with your child before bedtime, can help him or her appreciate personal, non-digital interaction, as well.
But for these limits on the amount of screen exposure to make an impact, parents have to lead the way. Set an example by switching off the TV and putting away you phones during meal times and explain why. Use that time instead to encourage a healthy family conversation that allows your child to share the details of his or her day with you.
Finally, any discussion of the right amount of screen time has to include discussion of time spent actively and outdoors. No activity – digital or otherwise – is better than active, unstructured play in the open. As Maria Montessori said, “Education in the first years of life must be dictated by nature herself, who has infused certain needs into the growing beings.”
The right content during screen time
Limits regarding what type of media your child consumes on a device is just as important as limits on screen time. Not all kid-friendly content is created equal. Educational content scores over entertainment-based programming, assuming it is age appropriate. But interactive educational apps are better than learning apps that allow only passive viewing.
Similarly, games and activities that encourage application and creativity like memory games, puzzles, building shapes, making music, etc., should be the obvious choice over games that require less thought.
Sometimes, programs blur the line between education and entertainment. Many of these programs have been developed to promote language and mathematical skills in children, and have shown some encouraging results in school readiness as well. Well-designed programs have strong narratives that exemplify social skills like conflict resolution and managing frustration.
But avoid fast-paced shows that keep kids hooked by changing visuals every second, like SpongeBob SquarePants. Studies show this kind of program can have the opposite effect, negatively impacting kids’ attention, working memory, problem solving and ability to delay gratification. So, choose shows that have longer scenes – like Winnie The Pooh, for example — to allow children to keep pace.
The right way of engaging during screen time
Which device your child uses also determines how good or how bad that screen time is for him or her.
Touch screens hold greater educational potential than other gadgets; research has indicated that children who interact with screens learned better, faster and made fewer mistakes than children who passively watched a non-interactive screen (like TV).
For younger children, the physical use of these devices – from swiping to pressing keys to using a mouse – has been shown to improve fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, skills that correlate strongly with cognition and social skill development.
Regardless of what type of device your child is using, another key factor in finding the right balance is actually using it with him or her. Watch the first few episodes of what your child has chosen to watch with her. If you don’t find the content appropriate, help her understand why, and then involve her in choosing the right program. This adds a level of interaction to the experience and allows you to draw real-life parallels that can help keep your child grounded in reality.
Technology, after all, is only one piece of the puzzle called learning. Its role is supplemental, and it cannot replace the human element of interaction between the parent and child. But when used in the right amount, with the right content and in the right way, it can help your child find his feet in a world that’s so different from what it was when we were small.