Experts warn against screen time for kids, but many parents still use it, whether out of necessity or by choice.
It might be something as small as letting your child play with a tablet while you shower and get ready in the morning, or larger like a full day of TV-time on the weekend. Some caregivers say the educational benefits of screen time for children outweigh any risks.
Debbie Borba, a mother of two in Toronto, admits to turning on the television in the morning in order to get breakfast made and lunches packed for school. She also lets her kids watch TV while she prepares dinner.
"I used to feel guilty when they were younger, but then I'd see how much they were learning and I wouldn't feel the guilt after that," Borba told HuffPost Canada.
"Now that they're older I don't feel guilty because they're in school all day. The guilt that I would feel when they were younger was because of other moms who'd say they don't allow their child any or very little screen time."
Screen time can be detrimental
A recent report from the Canadian Pediatric Society, sponsored by TELUS Wise, advises parents not to give children under the age of two any screen time, and to limit the screen time of children aged two to five years to less than one hour per day. Their research found that heavy screen time can be detrimental to children's language use and acquisition, attention, cognitive development, and executive functions.
"Parenting is all about caregivers setting guidelines, limits and expectations with their kids. Too much screen time takes away from quality family time and face-to-face interaction," Nimtaz Kanji, Director of TELUS Wise, an industry-leading educational program on Internet and smartphone safety, told HuffPost Canada.
Borba says her family's Saturday night movie is about as much screen time as her children get on weekends. While both children have iPads, Borba says they rarely play with them. If they have an appointment or other outing, Borba and her kids play "I spy" or "would you rather" as a way to pass the time.
"After school we play on the playground for a bit, and then when we get home we continue playing in the front yard until I have to make dinner," Borba said.
"On weekends we barely watch TV. We fill our day with activities such as crafts, dance classes, and playing with toys."
Coping strategies other than screen time are important
Having these types of coping strategies beyond screens is important for both child and parent development, according to Dr. Michelle Ponti, Chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society's Digital Health Task Force.
"It's so easy to whip out a phone or a tablet," she told HuffPost Canada, adding that parents need to learn how to redirect or distract their child when necessary, as well as being mindful of other environmental triggers that might be going on with the child.
"If the parents aren't learning these skills, then the kids can't learn how to self-regulate without a device."
Her advice to parents is to make a plan — with their child's input — about what screen time limits are best for your family.
"It's certainly a lot easier to set limits earlier on, than it is to cut back later."
Stick to a plan
The plan should answer questions such as what devices are in the home, who gets to use what, what content will be allowed, how long a device can be used, and any restrictions. This might mean no screens at the dinner table, or no screens in the bedroom.
"If you have a good plan and you stick by it, then screen time is absolutely a wonderful, valuable resource that we all can benefit from," Ponti said. "But if we're just mindlessly using it as a replacement for good parenting, or a replacement for learning other self-calming strategies or other activities, then it quickly snowballs."
Ponti mentions that left unsupervised, children can very quickly access violent or sexual content. Kanji echoes those concerns, saying that if caregivers are present and engaged when kids are using screens, then they can prioritize quality programming and educational content, as well as helping children recognize and question advertising, stereotyping, and other problematic content.
For many caregivers, however, screen time is what allows them to get through their to-do list and can't be supervised 100 per cent of the time.
"Life is all about balance"
Auntie of three Leanne Moran from Briston, Ont. says she has no problem using an electric babysitter with her two nieces and one nephew, depending on the time and circumstance.
"We definitely don't do it all of the time," she told HuffPost Canada, "But when you need 10 minutes of being left alone or peace and quiet, there is nothing quite like that distraction."
With more than one shift-worker in the home, Moran and her family use TV time when they are working the graveyard shift and there needs to be quiet for those sleeping during the day, and the weather is too poor to take the kids out. She also makes it a priority to have some snuggle time with her nieces and nephew if they choose to watch something together at the end of the day.
And while Moran allows the kids to use her cell phone to play games during long car rides or if they have been extra good, the family has a strict 'no phone at the table' rule. This includes dining out, where she'll play games with the kids such as spelling or math questions rather than handing them a smartphone.
"I know that it is frowned on by society as a whole to use electronic babysitters, and I too have an issue if a child is in front of it day in and day out, and not doing anything else," Moran said. "Life is all about balance. I see nothing wrong with rewarding someone's good behaviour with screen time, or to get those much-needed 10 minutes to do what needs to be done without children under foot."
Moran adds that rather than judging parents who use screens with their kids, society needs more compassion and understanding for a situation that as an outsider we don't know about.
Ponti says parents and caregivers should treat setting healthy screen time habits the same way as they do planning healthy, balanced meals for their children.
"We don't let our kids eat Cocoa Puffs all day everyday," Ponti said. "But once in awhile as a treat, sure, why not?"
"A healthy balanced approach to screens in our daily lives is great. And if that means using it as a babysitter while mom has a shower to get ready because she's off to work in the morning, I don't think there's anything wrong with that."
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