Screen Time: How do we help before it matters too much to Children?

screen time for children

We don’t have a television at home! Our home is almost a kids’-screen time-free zone. Sounds adorable, right? Okay, let me not pretend to be an adorable parent. There have been days when I’ve had tight writing deadlines and I had no other go but make the boy sit with the tab. There have been days when the boy had refused to have food without watching a video. Yes, I’ve been there and I’ve done that! I’ve fallen and risen as a parent and today our home is almost a kids’-screen time-free zone – not because of any strict parental control but because my children are busy with other important businesses and they don’t remember to ask for screen time. And one day, when they want to watch something, I allow them without guilt or fear because of the screen time culture that has been carefully raised in the family. I have much to talk about this today. Be alerted for a long post.

Screen time is one of the burning parenting issues of the era! As a parent, I am not strictly against screen time for children. Electronic devices have the potential to do everything wise and ugly to anyone, be it kids or adults. It’s up to us what we want to make out of it.

It’s already the last week of the A to Z blogging challenge 🙄 8 more posts to go! Pst pst! I haven’t done the N,O and P posts yet 🙁 If you didn’t know, from 1st to 30th April, I write one post a day on The Things that really matter to Children. Scroll to the bottom of this post to see the complete list of posts in the series.

S for Screen Time – How de we help before it matters too much to Children?

Before I begin, let me make a strong emphasis that children below two years of age should not be introduced to any screen time, except for video chatting with long-distance family and friends. If you ask me if I did, yes, my children did not have any screen time until they reached clarity and coherence in speech. I specifically mention speech development here because research says infants and babies who are exposed to screen times early carry a risk of speech delay. Not that I mean to judge, but as a warning let me share that I’ve come across several parents living abroad who have introduced video-watching to their babies, come back to India for speech therapy for their four-year olds. Yes, it happens in India as well, but just that there is more opportunity for mother tongue interactions in India than in other countries.

So, the rest of the post is intended for children of 2-7 years.

What do children do with the screens?

It varies a lot from home to home.

  • There are homes where the television is ON almost throughout the waking hours, programmes being shuffled ranging from cartoons and sports to news and debates to movies, soap operas and reality shows.
  • There are homes where there isn’t a cable network connection and instead exclusively use smart TV facilities like Amazon Prime or Netflix.
  • There are homes where children are allowed to access online media like YouTube videos of rhymes and cartoons on phones and TVs while,
  • Some others allow children to watch only downloaded offline content.
  • There are homes where children are gifted gaming consoles and allowed to play video games on the television.
  • There are homes where children play games like minecraft or subway surfers on phones or tabs.
  • There are homes where children are allowed to watch only photos and videos from the phone gallery.
  • There are homes where children are encouraged to use learning and development apps for creative drawing or improving math skills.

In most homes, two, three or more from the above may overlap as well.

How do we choose what to allow our children to watch?

There is no one protocol! Every parent has different priorities for their children and as long as something which your child watches doesn’t worry you or anyone at home, it should be alright. But it is important to understand the pros and cons of what your child is doing with the screen so that you get an idea of how much you can let it influence your child rather than going for the popular ones.

  • For example, in cartoons, I know many parents are okay with Chota Bheem and of course he is one of the most favourite cartoon characters of the country, but my children have not watched even one episode because I find no meaning in the fights and violence they inculcate in children. I like Robocar Poli for the safety and rescue measures it teaches children but again, I have heard some parents feeling not okay with the “I hate you’s” they use in the episodes. I like Blaze and Monster Machines for the STEM concepts it talks about but I’ve always felt the characterizations of Crusher and Pickle could have been avoided.
  • Screen games can boost brain power but carry the risk of gaming addiction in kids. For example, Minecraft games can provide various building perspectives in children, however, as a parent you may prefer wooden blocks and legos instead of a screen game to achieve the same.
  • Some parents may feel alright to introduce their children to negative emotions like hatred, violence or fear shown in movies while others may not want to. I am not sure if there is a right or wrong in this though in general parents are advised not to expose children below 7 years to picturizations that depict extreme violence, sadness like death or fear like in thrillers or horrors because young children lack the ability to distinguish between reality and movies.
  • You may also want to choose content based on your child’s interests. My son loves legos, so I allow him to watch The Axel Show where they show how to build legos and ways to use them creatively. He likes to do cardboard DIYs, so I let him watch related videos. The good thing about replicating their interests in screen time is, 9 out of 10 times, my son comes back to his play room after watching Axel show or DIY videos to try them out with his play things. Make a list of things your child is interested in. If they are into devotional songs, make it a part in their screen time. If they are into sports, allow them to watch matches, or if they like animals, try National Geographic Channel.
  • You may want to check out helpful apps and websites that can increase the quality of your child’s screen time. If you love star-gazing as a family, you can use an app like Skylite View. Apps like Duolingo can introduce new languages to children. There are apps for puzzles, crosswords, riddles and more to make screen time useful. Let me know in the comments if you use one for your children.
  • Well, you also need to keep updating what they are doing with the devices. If they were watching Paw Patrol at 3 and if they are watching the same at 6, you might want to think if it’s okay.

And this list in endless. The intention of this discussion is to make you go through in your mind what your children are doing on the screens, if you are happy with it and if you would like to change something about it.

How much screen time is alright for children?

As per the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics (I couldn’t find related information from the Indian Academy of Pediatrics), 2-5 year olds should not have more than one hour a day of screen time.

If this time limit can be followed in your house, then nothing like that. But if these guideline are put to rest in peace in your house, you might want to do something about it.

What’s so bad about screen time for children?

Well, we’ve already heard enough of it! Yes, the eye sight. Yes, the social and communication issues. Yes, the obesity risk. Yes, we are aware of everything! Despite the awareness, if we are allowing our children to use screens, it maybe because,

  • The benefits our children get of the screen time weighs more than the not-so-good effects.
  • We find it easy to engage our children. Else, either they are bored or they bother us too much.
  • We just don’t know how to cut it down.

So, is it wrong to allow our children to have screen time?

The direct answer is yes. But we may also want to consider other factors. As long as they are playing well, that is, initiate play by themselves, have ample outdoor play, are social with others, have book reading time with or without the parents, show interest in other day-to-day activities, do not show addictive behavior to screens, and can eat without the accompaniment of screens, you can relax.

How do we regulate screen time for children?

Ah, how we all knew this secret of parenting! If you were to search online, most are going to tell you not to use gadgets in front of your kids and to divert your children in other activities. If you found them hard to put to practice, you are not alone.

The screen time issue in your house could be anywhere between not-so-troublesome to very serious. From my experience of dealing with this issue, here is a comprehensive list of my thoughts and insights on the subject, some of which may apply to you while some may not.

1. Should we, adults, limit our screen time in front of our children? The answer can be both yes and no. Since children are thought to mirror us, the more we use gadgets in front of our kids, it is said that the more they may tend to ask for screen time. But, it need not be the case in all families. Also, at the end of the day, parents are humans too; we need our own time and privacy to do what we like to do. You come back tired from office and there’s a group of old friends discussing something interesting on your whatsapp group. Would it be wrong if you wanted to get into this world for a while instead of being with your family? Maybe not – when it is done occasionally.

Occasionally is the point here! If your kids were to see you grab the phone to check the notifications the minute you are back home from office or an outing, the minute you take a seat in the restaurant, the minute you wake up from the bed, the minute you stop for traffic signal – you are subconsciously letting them know how important gadgets are in your life. When the urge to pull your phone from your pocket arises, wait – wait until you’ve had an heartful conversation with the family and maybe announce that you are going to check something in your phone which you didn’t have time to do earlier.

And most importantly, look at your children when you converse with them. Don’t absent-mindedly answer their questions when your gaze and thoughts are into your device. The point is demonstrate to your kids that screens are only secondary to you.

2. Will reorganizing our priorities help? As adults, we may have a number of things to do on our devices. It could be for the sake of entertainment and something serious and important. Think, if you can reorganize your priorities so that in the time you are with your children, you are not on the screens for long. Perhaps you can wait until they go to bed, or give up things that are not mandatory.

I’ll give you an example from my case. As a blogger, it is a minimum requirement that I share my posts on social media. My blog’s traffic is pathetic and the handful of readers I get is solely because of the social media shares. Being with kids full-time, all that I get to do is the minimum requirement. If I were to work on the blog SEO or interact with fellow bloggers or reply to my blog comments now and then, I know I’ll be increasing my blog’s traffic. But that would mean that extra time I am with my device, I am losing something with my children. So, I’ve given up on attending to my blog’s needs, in peace.

3. How do we balance screen times of grandparents and children? It may sound funny but in many homes, it could be a concern. While grandparents are bored in life and want to spend their lives in watching TV programmes or being on the mobiles, they might be right on their parts. But what influence does it give on your children is a thing you need to think about.

4. Will engaging kids in other activities help in cutting down screen time? It may or may not. There are many products in the kids’ market that claim to take children away from the screens. I can only see them as marketing gimmicks that know how to target parents’ utmost concern on the kids. If an activity can achieve that, it’s well and good. But when your children have their minds set on the screens, they are going to bounce back to the screens after their work is done. I mean to point out that unless children have an innate interest to play or engage in something else, mechanically diverting them cannot be a solution to keep them away from screens.

5. How to handle emotional meltdowns associated with screen time? 

Yelling and getting frustrated doesn’t work in the long run for limiting screen times. Children may tend to roll down on the floor crying their belly out when the devices are pulled away from them. One of the tricks is to watch with them for a while before you begin to countdown. Get into their world, share the fun and bring them back calmly.

6. To parents of toddlers who don’t have screen time yet, how should you begin screen time to your kids? Eventually, children of today are inevitably going to have screen time. But as a parent, if you can regulate it from the start, it will not end up to be an issue later. Here are some points for you:

  • Watch with your kids for the first few months or years. It is important that you share the screen times in the beginning. You can explain to them what’s happening. You can have some fun and laughter together about what you are watching. You can also show to them that an episode is over and you’ll turn it off now. It can be a good bonding time and it gives you early opportunities to educate your child what’s good and what’s not-so-good about screen times.
  • Create screen-free zones in your house. Children must be taught early that they cannot have screen time anywhere and everywhere. It is better if you limit only to televisions so that they don’t take a gadget in hand and roam around the house. Even if they use gadgets, make a rule that it is not allowed inside your bedroom or the playroom or the bathroom. It is important that we follow this too. In our place, we leave our gadgets outside when we enter the bedroom or the kids’ playroom. There will only be a basic Nokia handset in the room during sleep hours for emergency.
  • Create screen-free times in the day. The earlier you make strict rules of screen time limits, the better it is. If you are just starting, clearly make time limits and stick to it. No screen time during meals, when there are guests at home, during reading time unless you are reading from a device, during potty time, at least an hour before sleep time – you have to take it seriously before you plan it all out.
  • Understand what is available for children before you allow them to watch. Be aware of TV channels or shows that maybe popular but are not-so-good for children. Chutti TV is a popular kids’ channel in Tamilnadu but I was shocked with the derogatory language the characters use when I happened to watch it once. Your children are definitely going to learn words and accents from what they watch. Be informed! I recommend Nick Jr. for English cartoons and I’ll like to know what other parents recommend for other languages in the comments.
  • Allow them to make mess, foster their independent playtime & introduce the world of books to them. When children are active into their natural interests, they are less likely to turn to the gadgets. When they find a lot of barriers like not to do this and not to play this way, they may slowly retire to what works best – sit at one place and have fun. 
  • Make screen-free travels & outing. When you are outside or traveling, no matter what, let children know there cannot be any screen time. Rather make travels interesting and memorable with conversations, observing things around and playing family games. It feels painful when I see parents make their child sit with a mobile in a restaurant so that can have a happy meal. I understand how difficult it is to manage kids in a restaurant but I would advice please face the challenge, it’s an opportunity to get better in parenting instead of retiring to gadgets.
  • Be wary of using screen times of your kids for your purpose. There can be times, maybe when you have an important interview call, or you want your child to be safe while you have a quick bath or just simply you want to take a nap that you allow your child to meddle with your device. Empathetically speaking, from a mom’s point of view, this may not be entirely wrong. But you just need to be extra careful of not overdoing it, lest you will get addicted to this practice as a means to escape the miseries of running around a toddler.

7. For parents of children who have moderate screen time.

I believe that most parents will fall under this category. We may not be worried for now yet we hold the responsibility to manage their screen time, for there is only a thin line between moderate level and addiction.

In this stage, if your children are still young to learn the technology, try some tricks rather than direct verbal controls. Here are some:

  • Turn off WiFi or mobile date before you give them devices to handle. At this stage they may not persist too long in their demands. But be consistent in what you want to do.
  • Think about the possibilities to disconnect the cable connection in your TV if TV channels are what they are habituated to watch.
  • Use timers in TV and devices to automatic screen-offs.
  • Make password protection in your devices, if you are capable to keep it a secret from them 😉

It’s not late to create screen-free zones and screen-free times or any of the points from the category above.

One way we can prevent from pushing kids to addiction is by NOT blaming children and making them feel guilty for using devices. I mean to say that not projecting screen time as a crime actually helps.

8. For parents whose children have excessive screen time.

You are half successful if you can identify that you fall into this category because it is worse to believe that you belong to the category above when in fact your kids belong here.

  • First of all, take down the guilt from you that you were indirectly responsible to have allowed your child excessive screen time. Most often we shout at our kids because of our guilt more than for what they are doing.
  • Children are adaptable than we can imagine. It may seem like things have gone out of your hands and it is impossible to reverse but, believe me, it can sometimes happen overnight.
  • In some children, excessive screen time could be a result of parents being emotionally not available to them sometime in the past or in the present. Stop before you chide your children the next time. Perhaps there is something serious bothering them. Address it.
  • With some children, abrupt disconnection of the sources can work, with the parents being able to manage the responses for a couple of days. But for some, you will have to work on it gradually over several days or weeks. Think what best works for your child. Be patient and be consistent in your efforts.
  • Offer them a change of place like a family vacation. Talk to them calmly when you are on a vacation on several aspects of screen time while not making it a boring advice session. Discuss with your children the changes you want to make, include them in the planning and execution and when you come back, follow what you have planned.
  • If the problem is that both parents are busy with the career and have less time for the child, make alternate arrangements like look for a daycare or a sports, dance or arts class without jam-packing the child’s time with excessive classes.

Header Image Courtesy – Photo by bruce mars from Pexels

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One Reply to “Screen Time: How do we help before it matters too much to Children?”

  1. This is such an important topic and you have raised and answered some pertinent questions. Last week, I was waiting at the airport and there was a couple with 2+ year old kid. The kid was running around and making the parents run after him, so they catch him and make him have milk from his bottle and play some rhymes on the mobile. The child is glued to the screen and the mom gave me looks which said, he is happy that way! (I think my displeasure must have been visible). My point is that, it is the parents who have initiated their kid to this kind of addiction.
    Sometimes, parents dont even know what their kids are watching or even if they know they just dont care. Have you seen how Shinchan speaks? Or the storyline of Doremon? parents may have their reasons for ‘allowing their kids to be addicted’ to the screens, I think they should engage their kid constructively.

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