(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

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Guilty Mom’s Guide to Screening Kids’ Screen Time

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Guilty! I admit, that even though I am an educator and know that research suggests that screen time is not good for kids’ cognitive development (I guess probably also social and physical), I allow my toddler more than the recommended screen time (and no, I will NOT admit how much more I have allowed on a bad day).

I have tried to get support on different ways of overcoming this problem. Yes, I know, I caused it to begin with, but I assume you are reading this post because you feel guilty, too? So I am hoping you’re not judging me, and instead hoping to get some good tips. I hope you find some here. Every child is different. Every parent is different. I have tried to give examples that work for my child and me (given that I myself am addicted to my tablet and smartphone), but to abstract them in ways that would make it easy for others to apply to their own context. I would love it if you could share your own tips in the comment section.

Replace what they like on-screen with an off-screen alternative
Dr. Sears suggests that when a tired parent must resort to screen time, it is best to use that time with something musical, because music is good for children’s development. And so most of my child’s screen time always involved music. Until I realized suddenly that it was the music itself that attracted her to the screen and so I started to find lots of musical non-screen alternatives such as toys that play different songs, and us singing together (my voice is hoarse now because she has been wanting me to sing to her despite a sore throat). Another idea that worked for us is to let her play the song she likes on the screen, but to stop looking at the screen while we dance to the song (another Dr. Sears idea), or even just play beside it. These alternatives work for me about 30% of the time. But it is better than none at all.

Use screen time pedagogically
If you’re going to be stuck on the screen anyway, might as well try to make the best of it.
I have (thankfully!) found research that suggests that interactive screen time (e.g. iPad, but also interactive TV like Dora) can be beneficial even though passive screen time (as in mostTV) can be bad (read the research paper here)

I understand the general idea that educational games are really limiting compared to real-life ones (e.g. Most of the puzzle games always have the pieces the “correct-side-up” and help the kid place the puzzle piece before it reaches its proper place) but they are still better than nonsense games. On the other hand, how many real-life puzzle can you carry around all day without creating chaos? Use the versatility and small size of the tablet/mobile to provide several pedagogical alternatives to your child.

Other educational alternatives, include:
Reading: I download library books, free kindle books and free samples of kindle books and read those to her. She loves them and as she gets older, she likes to turn the pages herself. There are also many free Tab Tales books out there that are interactive and allow options for you to read for your child, or to allow the automatic voice to read to you.

Talking: I had heard somewhere that kids cannot learn language from machines. This is not the case with mine (though I understand that human interaction must be more beneficial). Before going to daycare, she learned new words from talking books on the iPad – words we had not spoken to her at home. But if you do want to boost your child’s verbal skills, you can use whatever app she enjoys to help her learn new words. E.g. The
Ginger Birthday app displays different types of food, and my kid is learning the words for them as we interact while playing it (more on this app later in the post)

Holding Even if I am busy doing something and need to leave my child to play on the iPad, if I can do whatever I am doing sitting down and holding her in my arms, I will do so. She may not be getting my full attention, but I believe having her in my arms at least must make her feel secure and loved on some level.

Use screen time socially
I sometimes let my child look at photos or videos of loved ones and friends in order to remind her of them (if she has not seen them in a while or misses them). It is screen time, but in this case it is helping her social development as she e.g. watches herself dance with her daycare classmates and names them. On another funny social note, when any person on the screen waves and says hi, she responds (strangely, she does not necessarily do so in real life! We’ll get there some day)

Find friendly apps
I am strongly against apps that promote violence of any kind. What’s with the talking Tom apps that allow you to hit the cat even when you are on Child Mode? I have heard an update stops them from doing so, but I have not installed the latest app on my devices anyway. If, for some reason, your child gets addicted to that app, though (and in my case she did, but not on my machine, I try to say “no, we don’t hit cats” and try to help her find other ways to entertain herself with the app, e.g. Sing to it, feed the cat, dress the cat, etc. It usually works.

One of the really friendly Talking apps is Ginger birthday (encourages your child to eat with it, and actually prefers healthy food like broccoli over junkfood like cake and lollipops) and the other Ginger app that takes a bath and brushes its teeth and is tickled when you touch its feet

Get out!
This is a tough one. If you are not too exhausted, try to just get out of the house and go somewhere where your child can play and be distracted by other things and not need a screen. I think this is really the only way to truly manage a reduction in screen time, but I think if we could physically run after a child outdoors for hours on end, we wouldn’t be feeling this guilty and reading (or writing) this post. I also noticed that my child knows that certain people do not have mobile devices with games on them (e.g. Her grandmas) and will find ways to entertain herself when she is alone with them with no mobile/tablet in sight. So if they know there is no machine there, they will probably survive! My next plan is to try the “I forgot it at home” trick on a long car ride… But that might be a bit difficult!

There. I feel a little bit relieved now that I have written this.

Please do share here any tips you have for reducing screen-time for your kids. Or, indeed, any research that suggests it is not that bad for them (wishful thinking, I know).

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Author: Maha Bali

Associate professor of practice, American University in Cairo

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