Last time I wrote about the harmful effects of excessive electronics on childhood development. That was the easy part. What follows is much easier said than done, but hopefully it will provide you with some tools for dealing with this problem in your home.
As mentioned previously infants and toddlers are especially vulnerable to the damaging effects of excessive screen time. And it is very easy to slip into the habit of using screens as babysitters from an early age. Too much sugar and salt in the diet will ruin a child’s appreciation for good food. In the same way, early and excessive exposure to electronic devices will interfere with her appreciation for the better things in life. This takes an investment of effort and time from an early age, but later on you (and your children) will reap the rewards.
Lead by example
We cannot expect a standard of behaviour from our children beyond what we ourselves have attained. This is true for any behaviour, from picking up clothes off the floor, to punctuality, to the language we use, and yes, to our propensity to live in front of a screen. You may not be playing Minecraft, and you may rationalise it in various ways (‘It’s work, sweetie’), but your children are observing you all the time, and they learn more from what you do than from what you say. Your child needs to see that you are more interested in finding out about his day at school than your Facebook page. It is up to us as parents to create the culture we desire in our homes. We need to model to our children a lifestyle which prioritises the right things. In my family that includes spiritual growth, relationships, conversation, schoolwork, a love for nature, exercise and reading. Maybe your list is different, but have you articulated that list for your family? Perhaps a starting point is to do just that, and spend some time reflecting on how your own lifestyle matches up to those priorities.
Pay special attention to the holidays
It is natural to relax one’s parenting guard in the holidays, and who can blame you? You are also exhausted, and of course there’s cricket to watch. But childhood development doesn’t stop when school breaks up. On the contrary, there is compelling research which suggests that what happens on vacation is actually very important, cognitively and in every other way. We need to be intentional about how the holidays are spent. Endless hours on YouTube is not healthy for children even if there’s no homework to do. Of course we need to relax in the holidays, but rest doesn’t have to be mindless, for adults or children. How about having a mini family meeting each evening to discuss the following day? Each person gets a turn to choose from a reasonable list of activities. Even if there’s only one item planned daily, at least it punctuates the day with something wholesome.
Many parents need to continue working in the holidays, and are not readily available to supervise how their children’s time is spent. Here are a few suggestions:
- Enrol your child in a holiday programme. There are many excellent camps and sports clinics offered in the holidays.
- Enlist the help of grandparents or other family members. Sometimes they just need to be asked, and this quality time is beneficial for both the younger and older generations. Even your neighbours and friends can help. As the saying goes, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’
- Join the local library. This often-neglected community resource is affordable, lots of fun and good for your child’s development.
- If you have home help, be intentional about communicating your expectations for the children to them. It is more important that the children are properly supervised than the shirts are ironed.
- Where possible, take a child to work. With a little planning, this can be a highly stimulating and educational experience for your child. It is also excellent parent-child quality time.
‘Doctor, how much screen time is appropriate for my child?’
As you can imagine, this is one of the more commonly asked questions in my practice these days. Of course this will depend on the age of the child their particular circumstances. Children under the age of two should not watch screens at all. Thereafter there should be a gradual relaxing of limits, commensurate with the increasing maturity of the child and with their increasing ability to make wise choices for themselves. For what it’s worth, here are my rules:
- No electronic devices in bedrooms. They are bad for sleep and also difficult to supervise if they are not in more communal spaces.
- A smart phone is a privilege, not a right, and even a teenager should understand that having one is subject to random parental checks.
- No electronics at mealtimes. The TV should be off and the phones put away. It is very important for families to spend at least one meal a week all together around the table, talking and making eye contact.
- Weekends: Not more than three or four hours, including family TV time. Of course this also depends on the day and on other priorities. Screen time should not be first thing in the morning; other things must get done first, including chores, exercise, family activities and the like. In this way, electronics can be used as an incentive, and a very useful one at that!
- Weekdays: Ideally nothing at all, but one hour at the most, subject to other tasks being done. Of course, the problem with a set time limit is sticking to it. Your child won’t, I promise, so you have to. You will have to set a timer, and monitor it, in the midst of your cooking, supervising the younger one’s homework and fetching the older one from ballet. Good luck with that…
Proactive versus reactive parenting
But there is a better way. If we focus our attention on the good stuff, and if from the very outset we are intentional about creating the right culture in our homes, then we will have less need to enforce rules in a legalistic manner. I firmly believe that playing board games, healthy conversation and outdoor activity is actually more fun than Pixel Gun, but as with many worthwhile pursuits, these are acquired tastes and have to be practised. When we first started taking family walks in the park, our children complained and grumbled. It was almost not worth it. Almost. But now we have created a family culture of walking on a Sunday afternoon, and (by and large) the kids actually enjoy it. Society needs rules, and so does every home. As with many aspects of parenting, it is easy to default to Thou shalt not… but when the better activity is more fun and more enticing than the prohibited one, the rules fade into the background. This is what we need to aspire to as parents. As with anything worthwhile, it takes planning, active engagement and, at times, downright hard work, but as with anything of value, it’s worth the effort!
Brendan Belsham MD is a child psychiatrist and writer. His book, What’s the fuss about ADHD? is available through Amazon (click here).