Cute little baby watching cartoon on digital tablet sitting on the sofa. Parenting control. Child internet safety concept.

Finding A Screen Time Balance

My background and education is focused around child development. Way back in my University days I did a semester long independent research project on the effects of screen time on children 0-8 with the goal of unlocking the mystery of finding a screen time balance. Twenty scary pages imploring parents, caregivers and educators to focus on play and put off screens until children are at least eight years old. I was a nanny at the time. And I never let the children in my care so much as glance at my phone screen. I swore I would do the same with my future children.

Then I became a parent. A full time parent. Nannies can go home and rest at the end of their day. Try doing that as a parent- HA. I did make it until 2, as the strongest research highly suggests it…but then I began to implement screen time as a tool. If I needed to shower, or make dinner, or have 20 minutes of peace from her toddler rage- Daniel tiger was on que and up to the task.

Well, now she’s six. And since starting Kindergarten her screen time looked like movie nights once a week or pulling out the old tablet on a snow day or sick day. Our lives were so full with school, enrichments, and playdates that there wasn’t the need or even the time for screens. I was lucky to get most of my work done from home while she was at school [20% off virtual sleep training during this 2020 pandemic btw.]

Now, there is no school. And I have 35 hours of childcare that have disappeared; with no replacement in sight. And so I’ve brought back the technological assist. This morning we learned about frogs and dinosaurs, telling time and compound words. We did yoga, had lunch…and now she is in her room, on her tablet, playing a game where she is a daycare worker to virtual toddlers.

I’ve always told parents to use technology as a tool.

Well…right now it’s become all the tools.

It’s the tool to connect our children with others. It’s the tool to educate our school aged children from their digital classrooms. It’s the tool to occupy your children so you can work…or breathe. Being stuck at home with children of any age is not a normal situation. Normally we break up the day with a trip to the playground, or the library, or a friend’s house. Normally when we’re feeling overwhelmed we can take a trip to target or have a date night. All of our parenting coping mechanisms are closed for quarantine.

Here are some tips:

  • Only consider screen time to be tv/video/computer games. Connecting with others, things for school, music, movement or virtual classes don’t count towards any daily quota that you’ve set for yourself.
  • Try to have screen time be at certain times of day. Ours is between 2-5pm. Sometimes it’s an hour, sometimes it’s a few hours. But my daughter knows she has to do school then play and entertain herself for a while before she can vegetate. Sometimes your kids will surprise you with how long they can actually independently play for when they know screens aren’t an option! If schedules aren’t for you. Turn off all screens at LEAST an hour before bed, ideally two hours. And yes this DOES count for facetime and homework. All technology should turn off in preparation for a solid night’s sleep. This counts for adults and teenagers too, but is especially important for children.
  • Have movement before and after screentime. This is especially important for younger children/toddlers. Have a mini dance party, put on cosmic yoga on youtube, take a walk around the block, wrestle in bed- anything to get their bodies moving. In non quarantine times I recommend movement in a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio to screens [1-2 hours of hard playing to counteract an hour of screens]. But in these times try for even 5-10 minutes of shaking sillies out- just to keep their legs from atrophying and to help counteract the mental passivity of screentime. [This also helps prevent meltdowns.]
  • Babies don’t need screens. If your baby is under 18 months old then they can be just as easily occupied with prompts as they can with screens. Too much screen time can actually delay their development. 2 months in quarantine for a one year old is 1/6th of their whole life! If screens are on for siblings don’t stress about it too much, just make sure to offer them tactile objects that they can hold, lick and bang. Please just never put your baby in a highchair or bouncer in front of a screen where they can’t look away.
  • Have safety limits. I personally don’t allow young children unsupervised on youtube. It’s an unregulated rabbits hole. I prefer closed interfaces like Kindle Freetime or Leapfrog. If you have an older child that has access to the world wide web- make sure you are talking with them about internet stranger danger. About how they can talk to you about ANYTHING they accidentally see. [Age 11 is the average age of first exposure to pornography on the internet.] It’s easy to get lost in work for hours but make sure you are checking on them periodically.
  • Don’t give them your phone. Trust me on this. First of all no little ones can be trusted to not accidentally call a client or drop it in the toilet. Secondly it will be SO HARD to condition them not to ask for your phone after this is over. Give them an old phone with some apps, an ipad, an extra computer- or just buy them their own tablet or chromebook. Your phone should be off limits. This has saved me so much over the years. I can honestly say I’ve never downloaded a child’s app on my phone in my 10 years of having a smartphone around young children that CONSTANTLY ask, “do you have any games??”
  • Have other options!
  • Know that this isn’t forever. When the world opens up, it’s going to take a bit for your children to transition. Screentime is addicting. And your child may tantrum during their withdrawals. For younger toddlers just let the tablet die and tell them it’s out of batteries. Set an example and turn off computers and tvs around children. It’s easier to just cut everything out cold turkey for a week and then slowly phase back into whatever routine you want. If our children adjusted to play spaces being closed for a month, they can adjust to the Tv being closed too! For more information check out kidshealth.

Take it from me; the kids will be alright. Truly. Put on that childhood classic in the background for comfort. Let your kids facetime their friends and family. Give them their tablet or computer so you can make enough money to keep the wifi going.