Raising kids in the digital age presents new parenting challenges. How best to manage screen time is the burning question of the day.
If you consult the Canadian Paediatric Society, you’ll get some guidance but it's skimpy at best.
For children two and under, CPS suggests zero screen time (or as little as possible). I agree. The first 18 to 24 months of life is the biggest singular time of brain growth.
Neuronal growth can reach 250,000 new neurons per minute. Yes, the brain is literally exploding and reaches 80 per cent of its full size by the age of two.
Then the brain growth slows significantly, such that the remaining 20 per cent of growth is accomplished between ages two and 25.
Since we don’t have research on young children and the impact screens have on brain development in this vital period, I live by the adage "if it ain’t broke don’t fix it." No screens please.
Toddlers and pre-schoolers
But what about todders and preschoolers? Most kids in this age group are using their screens for one of two reasons: education or entertainment.
Since the brilliance of "Sesame Street," we have learned the power of combining entertainment, engagement and interaction to help children learn. There are fabulous digital interfaces that can help teach youngsters their shapes, colours, patterning and much more.
Watching "Frozen" on a tablet is a great way to pass the boring car ride to Gramma’s house. Pure leisure time. We all need some.
But how quickly do parents grab for a phone or tablet to soothe or quiet a restless tot who could otherwise be learning how to entertain themselves? Or learning to be patient and to endure some of life’s tedium? Screens are a quick fix we parents are becoming far too reliant on.
For older children, CPS recommends only one to two hours a day of screen time. But research reveals that children in grades six to 12 are on screens closer to eight hours a day. Are we all bad parents? Or are those recommendations just way out of whack?
Well, here’s a peek at what a typical screen day looks like for a 15-year-old:
1. Look up the homework assignment her teacher posted online
2. Check her bank balance to see if her allowance has been transferred
3. Email her grandmother
4. Use Garage Band to edit the song she recorded on the guitar
5. Look up the weather forecast to see what to wear that day
6. Check Twitter to see if school buses have been cancelled due to the storm warnings
7. Text with her dad who lives in another town
8. Work on building her website and blog about the upcoming school trip
9. Chat, text, Snapchat and/or Instagram with friends
10. Work on a Google doc for a group project
11. Create a running playlist
12. Check Fitbit data
13. Browse Pinterest for decorating ideas for her room
14. Check the movie trailers for movies to see on the weekend.
The list could go on forever. The point is: the screen is not the enemy.
Much of our daily activities that once happened offline have moved online for both adults and children. So of course it takes up a lot of time! It’s called living.
The better question is what is the value of what we and our children are doing online and does the time spent reflect our goals, values and what we want to be accomplishing?
We all know how easy it is to be lured into a game of Candy Crush only to realize we have given it two hours of life when we know all too well we really ought to be focusing on more substantive activities.
Try using an app called VISR, which tracks families' online activities. It can be eye-opening to see actual data on how much time we are spending on each platform.
After analyzing the data, you can work together to set some appropriate time limits together. VISR will turn off different applications, which can be really helpful for a child who needs the computer for homework, but needs some help shutting off YouTube so they can concentrate on school work. And no emails for you and hubby after 9 pm might make for a better night sleep for you both!
The quality and diversity of time spent is also important. I like using the popular metaphor of food to explain this to parents. Just like food, you want to nourish your child online and give them a balanced diet. Don’t feed them digital junk food all from one food group. Variety and quality reign over simply measuring “screen time.”
Here are some ways of measuring a balanced digital diet.
Texting is a great way for youth to stay connected with their parents. My children communicate more openly and lovingly by text. It's also their preferred platform when they want to share difficult information. I am OK with that, so long as the doors of communication are open — it's all healthy.
Fighting and drama by text, however, is not good quality communication. We have to teach children to jump offline when the quality deteriorates.
If you are a youth living in a small rural town, chatting online with other LGBTQ youth can be hugely normalizing and provide support that might not be available offline in their community. That is healthy online socializing. But hanging out with strangers in a chat group as a way to get attention and solve loneliness is NOT healthy.
If kids are ignoring family, evading responsibilities and isolating themselves in order to be with new, online friends, balance has been lost and should be restored with appropriate limits and boundaries.
Candy Crush is highly addictive, but it’s a mindless pursuit. Then again, so is playing solitaire (online or off). Sure it's fun and we all deserve leisure time — in fact we need leisure — but how much time do you need to invest in that activity given the return on your time investment?
Other games are designed to exercise our mental muscle. When looking for good kids' games and apps, don’t just look at the beauty and sophistication of the graphics. Many cute and innocent looking kids' games seem innocuous, but they are designed to motivate kids to buy add-ons, promoting useless consumerism.
Other games can teach strategizing, problem-solving and co-operation skills. Not sure how your kids' games stack up? Common Sense Media can help you with that.
It's important to teach kids proper screen etiquette... and that requires them to have access to technology. My children have their phones and laptops with them almost constantly, but they know good etiquette around their use. Looking at your phone under the table while others are trying to engage you in conversation is rude. Texting and driving is dangerous. Posting something you’ll regret means learning to have impulse control and applying online safety rules.
Passive versus active
Watching YouTube videos all day is passive. If you are watching kittens walking on piano keys, it's passive entertainment. If you watch TED Talks, it is called passive education.
Making a YouTube video, on the other hand, is creative and active. Encourage your children to be online producers, not just consumers.
Sitting around on devices for those eight hours a day can lead to neck issues, carpal tunnel syndrome, posture issues and more. The body is designed to be in movement and children should be physically active for an hour a day.
Make sure fresh air and playing in the great outdoors is a part of every day family life.
We all have favourite activities and preferences for how we spend our time. No one should dictate the exact formula for living, and some of you are raising geeky kids who love to be online.
As a parent, it’s important to support our children’s interest while exposing them to new experiences. Arts, culture, food, history, philosophy, science, drama, dance, language, natural history, sports, music and more. Online and off — be sure your child sees all the bands of colour in the vast rainbow of experiences life has to offer.
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