Is All Screen Time Created Equal?
Making the Best Choices for your Children
Before I had children, I was adamant they'd have very little screen time bwahahaha
Oh yes, what good parents we all were in those days before we actually became parents.
Then I had children and realised that there are actually quite a lot of decent shows. And sometimes they're missing out on talking to their friends about shows. And sometimes I just everyone to be quiet!
How much TV are children watching?
In 2019, children aged between three and four in the UK watched 12.7 hours of television per week. That's nearly two hours a day. The reality is that almost all of us use television at various times as a babysitter, an entertainer or even as a teacher.
Does the amount of screen time really matter?
More often that not we're taught to believe that screen time = bad. Studies often show no benefits of watching television for children under two, and for over twos it's not much better.
Most research warning against screen time has looked into the effects of television watching as a passive and sedentary activity. Basically they're looking at children sitting on their bums staring blankly at a screen. But this doesn't reflect the reality of what our screen time actually looks like today.
Screen time now includes games and apps and even online classes. Research has shown that by choosing the content of children's screen time carefully, (in over-twos) it can actually have educational benefits and even fill in gaps that we can't always meet ourselves.
Research has shown that by choosing the content of children's screen time carefully, it can actually have educational benefits and even fill in gaps that we can't always meet ourselves.
If we're going to use screen time sometimes anyway, what can we do to make it the best it can be?
How Should We Choose Screen Time Content?
I'll admit, for an easy life, I often just let my children choose their favourite Netflix show while I do their hair in the morning or take them on a long car journey. But if we're using screen time more regularly than that, we might want to start thinking about how small changes can help create a better learning experience.
1. Choose Interactive Media
If you want to use screen time for good, then you need to look for media that allows intelligent interaction. This is the difference between consuming media and interacting with media. If your child is sitting staring blanking at a screen for an hour, this probably isn't interactive content. Often this will mean choosing an app over a TV show.
You can also look for media that requires physical interaction. Some of the negative consequences of screen time relate to increased obesity in children. Finding content that encourages movement in some way can help to limit this. Something like Cosmic Yoga is great for this.
You're basically looking for shows, apps or classes that require your little one to do more than just sit there watching. Are they required to move, speak or join in in some way?
2. Choose Content Showing Good Role Models
Children are very good at imitation. Have you ever found your toddler doing something they've watched you do, or your preschooler using phrases they've heard from you? An 18-month old can imitate an event four months after seeing it only once. It's an incredible skill and ultimately how children learn about the world around them.
An 18-month old can imitate an event four months after seeing it only once.
So, if they're going to be copying what they see, think carefully about what you want them to be seeing. Online media is actually a great way to carefully expose children to role models and people they could never meet in person.
Look for shows, apps or classes that model positive behaviours. For example in Little STEAMers classes I constantly model curiosity and a passion for learning about science. As a result, parents often tell me their children speak about their love for learning about science.
3. Join in Yourself
If you're anything like me, once the TV is on it's time to sort the laundry or check your emails. However, a simple switch to watching and interacting alongside your child can make a big difference, not only to the benefits of watching, but these positive interactions can help your relationship and their behaviour too.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, Industry leaders recommended creating media for a dual audience (i.e., both parent and child) to facilitate family participation in media use and model more effective social and learning interactions.
Instead of sitting and passively watching with them though, try helping to bring the media into the room by interacting with it too and helping your child think about what they experience.
This can mean asking some questions about what they were learning or the story they watched. Ask about what happened and what they thought about what happened.
If you can't find anything intelligent to say about what they watched, then they probably haven't learnt anything from it and you should watch something else next time!
4. Don't Panic!
With all of that said, you really don't need to panic about screen time. It would be hypocritical of me to say as a parent that I personally follow this advice all of the time.
Sometimes you might need to switch on the first thing you find for your own sanity. Our mental health as parents is important too and we can't beat ourselves up for doing the things we need to do to get by. In older children there's even an argument that not allowing screen time could actually be detrimental to their future learning.
It's 2023 and screen time is here to stay. Our role as parents is to help our children make good choices and benefit from these choices - just like we do in all other parts of their lives. Maybe just start with one small change to your screen time habits and see how it works for you.
If you'd like to try some positive screen time yourself, Little STEAMers classes for 2-5 year olds are highly interactive, include physical participation and are set up expressly for parents to join in with their children to play, explore and learn together.