By Andie Stallman, M.A.
Technology and media have infested every aspect of children’s daily lives. From the accessibility of the internet to hybrid education, screens are everywhere, all the time. COVID-19 has only exacerbated time on screen. Colloquial advice from no screens at bedtime to no TV during homework time is commonly used. In contrast, being able to find any piece of information at any time can be an asset when writing essays, learning that new math strategy, or finding out the reason behind the Revolutionary War. But what do parents really need to know about the benefits and detriments of childhood screen use, and how can you, as a caregiver, best support your child in today’s technological world?
Outside of the ever-present access to the answer to any question you can ask, technology can be a valuable educational tool. When used appropriately, programming and educational games can promote increased vocabulary, sustained attention, and maintaining long-distance relationships. When used intentionally and responsibly, technology and screen time do not have to hurt your child’s chances of developing into a successful and healthy adult.
That said, there are caveats that adults should be aware of when a child is interacting with screens. The Canadian Pediatric Society uses the 4 Ms: minimizing, mitigating, mindfully using, and modeling. I go into an overview of each M and recommendations for how you can embrace each in your daily life below.
Minimizing: The first and most straightforward M is minimizing a child’s screen exposure. While video chats and educational programming are beneficial like a piece of cake, moderation and balance are key. Ensure that your child has opportunities to interact with peers, siblings, and adults face-to-face without technological interruption or background noise.
- For children below 2, avoid introducing screen time outside of video chats.
- Children under 5 should be limited to only an hour or less of screen time daily.
- As a practice for the whole family, screen-free time is crucial during family routines, such as meals and bedtime, to ensure that children are afforded the chance to share conversations and in-person interactions with adults. These are crucial opportunities for children to learn and develop, so it is important to prioritize them.
Mitigating: The next M, mitigating, calls for adults to reduce the risks associated with any screen use, such as the chance of consuming negative messaging about body image to reduced physical activity.
- Prioritize co-viewing of screens with adults or older siblings over solitary use. Co-viewing is the concept that you are actively engaged with your child while they use their screen. This ensures that your child can connect what is happening on screen to the real world, which promotes learning and fosters social connections that can be lost in the virtual world. Moreover, this safeguards your child from unwanted or dangerous content, including negative messages about body image.
- Additionally, avoid screens for at least an hour before bed. Screens during bedtime routines can make the bedtime routine take longer and reduce your child’s sleep quality. Experts also recommend that screens, such as TVs, tablets, and phones, be removed from the bedroom. This goes for adults as well.
- Finally, reduce the passive use of screens. Try to incorporate programming or games that prompt children to move their bodies via dancing or interactive touch screens, for example. When off-screen, be conscious of how much exercise and time outdoors your child is getting. Outdoor time has been shown to reduce the negative impact of too many screens, and exercise has been repeatedly shown to improve mental and physical health.
- Check here for a series of blogs I wrote on the benefits of physical activity for teenagers and alternative extracurricular options for youth who want to exercise but do not like more traditional sporting opportunities!
Mindfully Using: When children are on screens and interacting with media, you must be mindful of the content they are consuming and the purpose for which it is chosen. Setting clear boundaries with children can help transition from screen time and teach healthy media use habits.
- When your child is using a screen, talk with them about what content they are consuming, how long they are allowed to be on screen, and why the media or content is valuable.
- Moreover, avoid using screens, such as tablets or TV time, to calm, distract, or soothe your child. This can actually teach your child that they can get screens through tantrums and can make inappropriate behaviors more frequent.
- Additionally, when screens are used to help a child emotionally regulate, such as giving them the iPad to calm them down when upset, they cannot learn strategies to calm themselves down. They will struggle to regulate their emotions down the line. A temporary fix via screens can do more harm than good in the long run! Instead, act as a compassionate support.
Modeling: The final M, modeling, requires you to reflect on your own media use. Children learn a surprising amount by watching others. From language to danger assessment, children look to you to determine how to act. You mustn’t be just talking the talk but also walking the walk.
- Therefore, consider how you want your child to interact with screens, in the moment and as an adult, and begin embracing those habits yourself. What your child learns about media now will remain with them as they grow up, so it is never too early to start teaching and modeling healthy screen use.
- Turn off screens during family time and when interacting with your child. Even checking your phone during play can interrupt vital opportunities to build your relationship with your child, so be aware of when you are on screen!
- Healthy screen habits, such as prioritizing screen-free time and removing screens from the room an hour before bed, are not just crucial for your child but also for you!
While you must teach your child how to use technology sustainably and healthily, just as you would with nutrition, exercise, and hygiene, it is also vital for your mental and physical well-being to evaluate and improve your use of screens by minimizing, mitigating, and mindfully using technology!
Panjeti-Madan, V.N.; Ranganathan, P. Impact of Screen Time on Children’s Development: Cognitive, Language, Physical, and Social and Emotional Domains. Multimodal Technol. Interact. 2023, 7, 52. https://doi.org/10.3390/mti7050052
Michelle Ponti MD, Screen time and preschool children: Promoting health and development in a digital world, Paediatrics & Child Health, Volume 28, Issue 3, June 2023, Pages 184–192, https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/pxac125
Sugiyama, M., Tsuchiya, K. J., Okubo, Y., Rahman, M. S., Uchiyama, S., Harada, T., Iwabuchi, T., Okumura, A., Nakayasu, C., Amma, Y., Suzuki, H., Takahashi, N., Kinsella-Kammerer, B., Nomura, Y., Itoh, H., & Nishimura, T. (2023). Outdoor Play as a Mitigating Factor in the Association Between Screen Time for Young Children and Neurodevelopmental Outcomes. JAMA pediatrics, 177(3), 303–310. January 23, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.5356
Meet Andie Stallman, Imagination Playground’s childhood and play expert. Stallman holds a masters degree in Child Studies and Human Development with a special focus on clinical and developmental health and psychology. She is currently conducting research through McLean Hospital on adolescent mental health as she prepares for a PhD. Additionally, Stallman has experience in school and childcare environments working directly with children and teens who have a variety of needs and diagnoses, including schizophrenia, cerebral palsy, and autism spectrum disorder. This range of experience and knowledge brings a unique aspect to Imagination Playground’s commitment to researching the importance of play and promoting lifelong well-being starting in childhood.