Quarantined with Kids: When Screen Time is Sanity Time
Raise your hand if any of these sound like the reality of your life right now:
You are at home in isolation.
You are bombarded all day every day with the needs of the small (and larger) people around you.
You are overwhelmed.
You get to the end of your rope a LOT more quickly than usual.
You need a break.
What? You raised your hand on all of those? How about these ones:
You LOVE screen time because it is the only time your kids give you a break.
You feel super guilty about loving screen time.
You have read some scary Facebook articles and worry that you are rotting you child's brain.
Yes. As a mom myself, I hear you, and I can assure you that you are not alone. Screen time is one of the most controversial, guilt-inducing parenting topics of our time. If you google "screen time research", Google immediately lights up with all sorts of articles on the limits you should be setting for your kids, what you should and shouldn't be letting them do or see, and how long you should or shouldn't be letting them do that thing. I'm not a Neuropsychology researcher with an MRI machine in my basement, so I'm not an expert on this. But I am a Psychologist with lots of experience working with children, parents, and families. Let's just start by agreeing on some facts together, ok?
First, for context. This is not a normal time of your life as a parent. We are dealing with a global pandemic, and I want us to just take a step back, have a breath (really, please have a breath while you are reading this), and recognize that we are all stressed. In fact, we are more than stressed: we are in a state of flux between overwhelm and barely hanging on.
Second. Parents today are pioneers. We didn't have smart phones, tablet, or computers at all, really, when we were growing up. Parents, you are the first generation to be trying to figure this out.
Third, all of this technology, including facebook and google and instagram and twitter, means that there is way more information available out there, which can be good or bad. There are also way more opinions out there, which is usually bad. Parent guilt is a truly crippling mind trick. Because, of course, you would do ANYTHING for the well-being of your kid.
Fourth, all of these scare tactics are really bad for you and for your kid, because, when we are being honest, for most of us, saying "no screen time at all" is impractical. Many of the recommendations that are made seem more aspirational than actually possible.
Ok, now that we are all on the same page, let's have a productive conversation about screen time.
So, what does the research say? When researchers are being truly honest, they will tell you that they don't actually know. There have been a ton of studies out there that try to address issues such as screen time's effect on sleep, on eating, on ADHD diagnosis, on levels of activity, etc. etc. etc. These studies are always limited, though, because the way Psychology research is approved and conducted, it would likely be considered unethical to conduct a truly controlled study on childhood technology use. I won't get into all the details of that here. But understand that when you read an article on Facebook, it is often pop psychology that takes one possible finding and heightens, exaggerates, or generalizes that finding in a way that makes good (read: alarming) reading. I found this article really helpful in understanding screen time research further, and it is where I found many of the other links I will be referencing.
On a practical level, we want to know what to DO about screen time. Here are a few places to start:
Just start. Setting any limit is helpful. In this article, the researchers found that setting limits for screen time in general improved outcomes for kids, even though parents had very different rules for what limits they set.
Not all screen time is equal: content matters. I think this is probably common sense, but it's easy to forget, because when say "screen time" it includes youtube, video games, iPad apps, Netflix, and all other technology. I think we would all agree that the value of Minecraft is quite different than Grand Theft Auto, and watching Daniel Tiger is quite different for your preschooler's development than watching Shopkins. That doesn't mean things that aren't educational are bad. Just keep these things in context as you weigh pros and cons and work to set limits.
Screen time shouldn't be all the time. Have some times of the day, and even, if you're brave, a whole day of the week that is screen-free. Make sure screens are put away an hour before bedtime, at the supper table, and for a few other periods of the day. It's also a good practice to keep screens out of bedrooms. Make use of screen time when it will be most useful for you, like while you are working from home or needing a rest while the baby is down.
When you can, engage in screen time with your kids. One of the things researchers agree on is that especially for younger children, its really helpful for parents to sit with them while they watch or play with technology. It helps them understand context, learn better what they are seeing, and have a relational connection.
Use screen time for the good! Connect with grandparents, aunties, cousins, friends! Your child might be just the person to cheer up some loved ones. Plus, it will keep them positively occupied.
Make sure your kids are safe. Check on your child regularly (in context with their age and personality) in order to make sure you're aware of what they are doing with their screen time. Have talks with even young children about internet safety, and consider using educational apps and apps built for kids, such as YouTube Kids instead of the regular YouTube.
Ok, that was a lot of info. Take a breath. (Really, take a breath). I want to remind you, assure you, implore to you, that you are a good parent. You have read this far, which is a good indication of your commitment to your child, no matter their age. Hang in there, take good care of yourself, and work hard to remember that you are not crazy, you are not selfish, and you are not alone.
For further reading, I find these highlights from the American Association of Pediatrics practical and helpful. And of course, reach out if you need further support for you or for your child.
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