Tag Archives: screen time

Screen Time in Coronavirus Time

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So, you’ve all heard the cautions about too much screen time. For example, the 2016 statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which talks of risks like obesity, sleep challenges, exposure to inappropriate content and more. We’ve worried about how much screen time was too much.

And then… covid-19 came. And for most kids, screen time began to fill way more hours than in life before coronavirus.

We have a 9 year old and he spends so many hours on screen now: 2 – 3 hours a day on school work; teleconferences for school, for Sunday school, for appointments with his psychologist; Skype calls with his siblings and grandparents who we can’t see in person; playdates on Zoom; Wii sports on rainy days; ebooks since the library is closed, and a couple family movie nights a week. Plus, his reward for completing his day’s school work is… yep, you guessed it… a little screen time playing Pokemon or Minecraft.

It’s more screen time than we could have previously imagined. It’s certainly not optimal for development. But it is the current reality for many of us. So, rather than talking about “just say no to screen time”, I think we need to take more of a harm-reduction approach.

So, we’ll look first at how to keep young eyes and young bodies healthy while using screens, then we’ll take pointers from this approach, from the Media Policy Project:

We argue that this longheld focus on the quantity of digital media use is now obsolete, and that parents should instead ask themselves and their children questions about screen context (where, when and how digital media are accessed), content (what is being watched or used), and connections (whether and how relationships are facilitated or impeded).

Here’s some tips, collated from lots of sources:

Improve “Screen Hygiene” During Use

For their eyes:

  • Screens should be 18 – 24 inches from eyes
  • Use screens in locations with good lighting without a lot of glare (or consider a matte screen filter)
  • Adjust brightness and contrast for comfort
  • Consider night mode or blue shade mode on devices after about 7 pm to shut out the blue light which can disrupt sleep
  • Remind your child to blink now and then to avoid dry eyes and eye strain
  • 20-20-20 breaks: Set a timer – every 20 minutes, they should look at something 20’ away for 20 seconds (plus spend some time outdoors every day, looking at a far distance)

For their body:

  • Use good posture – typical advice is to sit so there’s a 90 degree angle at your ankles, your knees, and your hips, and that your elbows are at a 90 degree angle as your hands rest on the keyboard. Start with that advice, but then adjust as needed for your child’s personal comfort.
  • Choose good furniture – if you don’t have furniture that fits your child for their screen use, perhaps look for inexpensive options to help their posture
  • Vary seating choices – if possible, have multiple work stations so they’re not putting weight on exactly the same parts of their body all day long every day, or have an exercise ball to sit on, or a standing-desk station
  • Stretch breaks – encourage your child to take breaks between activities… at the end of a chapter, after finishing a school assignment, every 20 minutes, whatever “signposts” make sense; dance breaks are also great (try gonoodle.com)

Context Matters

Think about when, where and how screens are being used. Establish daily routines. Make sure you’re clear on when and where screens can be used, and when and where they’re limited or off-limits.

Take Breaks from Screens

Try to create some screen-free times in your day and in your week.

  • No screens at mealtimes? Many families declare the table to be a screen free zone so you have a chance to connect as a family and practice social skills and casual conversation. (Also, screen use during meals is strongly associated with obesity.)
  • Screen free days? I know several families who declare one day a week (often a Saturday or Sunday) to be screen-free.
  • Consider screen curfews: the light from screen media and the high stimulation caused by screens can delay sleep onset, and shorten sleep duration (source). Avoid screens right before bedtime.
  • Consider no screens in the bedroom: even if they’re “just charging”, they can buzz or light up as notifications come in, and this can disrupt sleep, and tempt your child to return to the screen at any hour of the night.
  • Be sure to balance screen time with physical activity, and with social interaction between members of the household.
  • Be sure to include some time every day outdoors – even if the weather is dreadful. Do choose outdoor areas that are less populated, rather than crowded parks, so it’s easy to maintain social distancing.
    • When we are indoors and using screens, we’re triggering our sympathetic nervous system – adrenaline responses keep us intensely focused, which is helpful for work, but exhausting to our bodies.
    • When we are outdoors, we shift to our parasympathetic nervous system, which is about conserving energy while the body is at rest, so the body and mind can heal itself. After spending just a few minutes in nature, we have lower pulse rates, lower blood pressure, lower cortisol levels.
    • Read more about the benefits of outdoor time.

Content Matters

Not all screen time is created equal. Some is helpful and beneficial, especially in this time of social isolation. Screens offer opportunities for learning, connection, adventure, and entertainment.

Some screen time is less helpful. Let’s think about some categories of screen use, and for each, figure out how to increase the benefits, and reduce the downsides.

  • Social time with friends and family on screens – Skype, Facetime, etc.
    • Connection Matters. I believe that when we are physically distant, having interactive conversations with others, even if it’s on a screen, is truly essential for our mental health and for a child’s developing social skills.
    • If you as a parent need a break during your time home 24-7 with a child, this social screen time with someone else can offer that to you. Our 26 year old son “babysits” our 9 year old over a Skype call while my husband and I have a date night at home.
    • For young children, think about how to make it as interactive as you can. For little ones, it helps to add a physical component – have your child show grandma a favorite toy – grandma can show your child the steps they’re doing as they cook a meal. It may be easier for your child to pay attention if someone is reading them a book rather than trying to engage them in a conversation. (Note for those who might not have kid books at home: on YouTube, you can find LOTS of great kid book read-alouds – I share my screen on Zoom and show the video to a child with the sound muted and I read the words.)
    • For older kids, try playing games together online: charades? hangman? There’s lots of online gaming platforms, like Jackbox games, kahoot.it, Ravensburger jigsaw puzzles, and more.
    • If you want a break away from the screen, consider also trying phone calls while going for a walk.
  • School work on screens – lots of school work is now online
    • Think about whether any of it can be physical work. For example, is there anywhere you can print a worksheet and have your child write on it with a pencil rather than using a stylus on a screen? If the math book is showing pictures of blocks, can you pull out real blocks? Instead of writing a paper on the computer, can they hand-write it, scan it, and email it in?
    • For younger children, kindergarten through second grade, you may want to ask their teacher if you can opt out of some of the online learning and instead do hands-on learning at home.
    • Have your child talk to you (or a family member or friend) about the work they’ve done – that helps move it off the screen and into their interactive brain.
  • TV, Movies, Videos
    • Ask yourself: Could you find books or audio books or podcasts that engage them as much in stories? (My son listens to story podcasts as he builds Lego.)
    • Can you watch together and make it a social activity instead of them watching alone? Or could they watch with a friend or family member using Zoom or Skype and sharing a screen, or using Amazon watch parties on Twitch?
    • Choose quality TV or video that teaches something, shows diverse people and experiences and reflects your family values. I really love Common Sense Media for researching our options.
    • Choose things that take you on an adventure outside your home. This is a great time for nature documentaries, or shows about foreign lands – anything with a touch of the exotic can be a welcome break!
    • Have your child watch where you can keep eyes and ears on what they’re watching.
    • If your child is using YouTube or other similar platforms, check their history now and then to make sure they’re making appropriate choices, and have conversations with them about what they’re consuming.
    • Set limits on what’s appropriate in your family and what’s not. If your child violates those limits, then impose consequences – take away entertainment screen time.
  • Video games – I’ve got a kid whose deepest passions are video games, so I get that they’re an easy motivator to get kids to do another thing they don’t want to do (i.e. if you finish your school work you can play Pokemon…). Just try not to over-use them.
    • Ask yourself: Is there something else they could do? Is there some other reward that would motivate them?
    • Can you play together and make it a social activity instead of them playing alone?
    • Choose games with challenges – instead of just mindless Candy Crush games or platforming games that only teach hand-eye coordination, look for games with some cognitive challenges too – perhaps puzzles to solve, or building challenges to pursue.
    • Minimize games with lots of violence or age-inappropriate language, sexuality, and situations. Again, check out reviews on Common Sense Media or elsewhere.
  • Escape / Zoning Out – Realistically, in our current quarantined life, sometimes we just want to escape into something, and screens offer an easy escape. If you catch yourself or your child doing this, think:
    • What else could we do – could we just go for a walk? Or exercise? Put on music and dance? Do some crafts, play some games? Choose things that emphasize social connections and emphasize physical movement as a balance for all that screen time.
    • Try to minimize background TV and mindless clicking through social media. If you need the occasional zoning out time, consider setting a timer to remind yourself to look up and ask yourself if you want to continue or if you’re ready to move on to another activity.

What Else?

Several of my points above were “ask  yourself what else you could do.” I think that’s a key thing. If you consider what all your options are in the moment, and the screen solution is the best answer, then use the screen without feeling guilty. But, if you can think of other satisfying options, then choose those more often.

Now might be the time to try something new: Yes, you can be one of those folks who is telling everyone on social media about your families’ new hobbies – new musical instruments, your family’s first garden, your sourdough starter projects, roller blading adventures, art work, your new puppy, or the domino chain Rube Goldberg your child built!

As much as we love Lego in our family, I’ve previously resisted just having a bin out all the time. The clutter bugs me. But, in the midst of this quarantine-time, we’ve surrendered half of our dining table to a free-build Lego zone to encourage that hands-on play whenever possible. And this weekend, I think we’ll set up a tent in the living room, and toss a pile of books inside.

Read More:

I’ve written previously about the Benefits and Risks of Screen Time, and Making Screen Time Work for Your Family. It has a lot more tips about how to choose appropriate content, especially for toddlers and preschoolers.

The most helpful article I have found on the topic of coronavirus screen time is “Screen Time Recommendations For Parents: How Much Is Too Much For Kids?” from Child Development Institute https://childdevelopmentinfo.com/screen-time/screen-time-recommendations-for-parents-how-much-is-too-much-for-kids

My final piece of advice is be gentle on yourself – don’t feel guilty for using screens! We’re parenting in a situation unlike any other before us, and we’ll just have to do the best we can to make it through each day.

Computer Skills and Kindergarten Readiness

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There’s lots of information about the benefits and risks of screen time (TV, computers, video games, etc.), lots of opinions on whether young children should or should not be exposed, and advice on making screen time work for your family. Some parents might choose to avoid screen time through their child’s preschool years, and some may not have access to technology at home.*

But, I think it’s important for parents and early childhood educators to know that basic computer skills and tablet skills are becoming a part of kindergarten readiness.

The picture above is from my son’s kindergarten classroom in the Lake Washington School District (eastside suburbs of Seattle). Every morning, during reading stations, one station is using computer-based reading programs, such as HeadSprout. They also use DreamBox for math skills. Computer-based programs are an engaging way to drill kids in some basic math and literacy skills. But only if the child knows how to use a computer.

Today I watched several kids using the software with no problem, easily navigating use of the touchpad mouse, and the touchscreen, and understanding concepts like minimizing and maximizing windows, using their fingers to magnify an image on the screen, and so on. And I watched one child who lacked any basic understanding of how any of that worked. He poked randomly at the screen, getting random results – sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. No real learning was happening during the almost 20 minutes he spent trying to figure out how the computer works. The learning value lost in that 20 minutes only puts him farther behind his classmates.

So, I’m now adding to my list of skills for kindergarten readiness. I would recommend that all kids entering public kindergarten (at least in areas that have computers in the kindergarten classroom) have these basic skills:

  • know how to use both a mouse and a touchpad mouse – they know how to move the arrow around, understand the ideas of both clicking, and double-clicking
  • know how to use a touch screen – again, both how to move the arrow around and how to click; bonus points for understanding gestures like pinch to make an image smaller, swipe to advance to another screen, drag to move an item. (Look here and here for two guides to all the gestures that are typically used on touchscreens.)
  • have played with educational software / apps where they are given verbal instructions that they should follow

So, if you have access to this technology at home, consider adding in some computer skill learning for your child at least 3 – 6 months before they start kindergarten. If you want recommendations and reviews for kids’ games and apps, check out Common Sense Media.

If you don’t have access to this technology at home (In 2012, 72% had access to the internet at home. In 2016, 72% of Americans own a smartphone, which has likely increased the number of households with access to the internet), check whether it’s available at your local library or elsewhere in your community. Here in King County, all the libraries have public computers in their children’s areas that are loaded with lots of educational software, and will allow them to learn mouse skills and headphone use. (They do not have touch screens to my knowledge.)

I don’t think children need a lot of computer time – just enough to gain some basic skills and knowledge. The majority of a preschooler’s time should be spent engaged hands-on with their world, with time spent playing with open-ended toys, outdoor time, and free play time with peers.

A book about balancing screen time and outdoor time

I wanted to write about the book Dot. by Zuckerberg and Berger. It’s an intriguing book that reviewers on Amazon either love or hate, and it inspires debate about the place of screen time in children’s lives.

First, an overview of the book. This is a picture book for 3 – 6 year olds, with appealing illustrations, a charming main character (6 or 7 years old?), and an engaging story line.

It begins with Dot using her laptop and tablet – “She knows how to tap… to touch… to tweet… and to tag.” We also see her using a cell phone and Skype / FaceTime to talk and talk and talk. She is bright, happy, and enjoying her time with her tech. (Though her dog is looking pretty disappointed in this sedentary, indoor lifestyle.)

But then Dot succumbs to a moment of exhausted ennui.

Mom says “Go outside… time to recharge!” Dot sleepwalks out the door.

But then, outside, she smiles. She remembers… “to tap… to touch…. to tweet… to tag… to talk and talk and talk.” (This time the illustrations show her tap dancing, touching a sunflower, tweeting like the birds in the tree, tagging friends in a game, and talking while walking in the fields, always smiling and always accompanied by friends.)

She is bright, happy, and enjoying her time outside with friends.

But she hasn’t completely abandoned technology – on the last page, she uses her phone to snap a photo of a friend, and another friend is using a tablet, as they swing, and paint, and play outside with their dogs.

The negative reviews

Some reviewers are dumb-founded that a child would even use technology in this way (leaving me to wonder whether they’re parents themselves and if so, if their kids are now middle aged adults… My 22 year old was using a mouse and a desktop computer to play games at the age of three – definitely a digital native. My 5 year old learned how to swipe to the next photo on my phone when he was 8 or 9 months old. Not just a digital native – totally immersed in the mobile technology world, like most children his age. (Read here about how much screen time children have in the U.S.)

Multiple negative reviews talk about the unlimited screen time and the lack of parental supervision in the book. “I don’t know any 6 year old who has such free reign with so many tech devices and, even worse, goes unsupervised. Is this really what our world has come to? I think not, and the idea of suggesting something so absurd is upsetting to me.” It is true that we don’t SEE a parent in the book. But this is OFTEN the case with children’s books: as one commenter said “Where are Harold’s parents, for that matter, and why does the poor child have only a purple crayon? How could those Seuss children’s mother have left them home alone for the whole day, and didn’t she teach them NOT to open the door to strangers?” But it is the mother who intervenes and sends the child outdoors to play. So, clearly there is supervision and there are screen time limits.

And of course, other reviewers were appalled that the child was allowed any screen time, citing concerns about the harms of radiation from cell phones, obesity, online stalking, adult websites, and more. (You can read my summary about benefits and risks of screen time here.)  “As parents, our job is to shield young children from information technology in the early years of life, not encourage it. Just where does Dot get her tech devices? She cannot afford them on her own, so her parent must be purchasing them for her. This sets the wrong precedent about our role as parents of young children: Parents as addiction enablers, not protectors.”

Other reviewers note that the character tweets and shares (presumably on Facebook) which are not typically activities that a 6 year old girl (like our protagonist) would do, and certainly not what a 3 – 5 year old (like our audience) would do. I was willing to let this slide, because of how they play with the words “tweet” and “share” later on in a different context.

There’s others who feel like it’s an advertisement for technology – the author, Randi Zuckerberg is the sister of Facebook founder Mark Z.

Positive Reviews:

My 3 year-old is enjoying this book. Tonight she says “Go outside Dot!” and that’s the message that she’s getting. Technology is fun but after a while you need to go outside.

“The “Dot.” character is extremely loveable and its easy to relate to her journey as she struggles with the differing forces in today’s society — the pull of technology versus being outside in nature and developing a sense of community.”

“I ordered this book to read as the technology facilitator for a k-5 school. Kids love it…Opens the floor for good conversation.”

I bought this book for my three-year-old son and he absolutely loves it. He knew how to ‘swipe’ on an iPad shortly after turning one. I love the overall message of the story, as technology is a big part of our culture and it is not going away. This book reminds us while technology is exciting and beneficial to our daily lives, so is enjoying friends, family and the outdoors. As we move into the future I want my son to always remember the importance of this balance, and I think this story represents that message well.

“I am a pediatrician in practice for 20yrs and really like that it brings up the importance of getting outside & playing. Since it is a reality that children are on electronics starting from a young age, the idea that what they learn on the computer can be made fun & relate to the outside world is a great concept. Its an easy way for parents & kids to have a simple conversation about the importance of balance in their life starting from a young age.”

My thoughts

This is a cute little book. I’m not saying “wow, one of the best books I’ve ever read.” But it is a nice read, and a good basic summary of the need to find a balance between technology and outdoor / active / social play. It’s a good discussion starter.

Some parents choose to strictly limit their children’s exposure to screens. If you’re a screen-free family (or very limited screen use), this is not the book for you.

But if you are a family who uses a lot of technology, and tries to balance it with other opportunities, this could be a good book to share with your children about the joys of other types of play.

You can check out my collection of Tips for Making Screen Time Work for Your Family.

Link

Check out this helpful resource on Screen Sense – Research-Based Guidelines for Screen Use for Children Under Three Years Old.

They make some familiar recommendations, such as

  • Avoid having the TV on in the background. Turn the TV off when no one is watching.
  • Avoid using screens as part of the bedtime routine
  • Be mindful of and limit your own screen media use when children are present.

However, they also say:

“Although children learn best through hands-on exploration… they can learn from [screens]. What is most important is that 1) content is age appropriate, 2) viewing time is limited, and 3) parents are involved, and help children make the connection between what they see on the screen and the real world.”

And, they offer great tips on how to choose content and how to extend your child’s learning. Some examples:

“Help your child make the connection between what she sees on a screen and the real world.Play games with her afterward using objects similar to what she has seen on the device, such as blocks or a ball. Point out and label objects in real life that she has seen on TV or on touchscreens, such as animals and flowers.”

“Create ways to extend your child’s learning from media.If a program focuses on animals—such as an armadillo—when it’s over, make up a pretend story about armadillos that you and your child can act out. Apply the colors your child has learned from an app by labeling the colors of the family’s clothes as you sort laundry together.”

Passive Toys = Active Kids

passiveThought for the day, from a workshop based on the principles of RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers.): the more active the toy, the more passive the child.

An active toy that does something entertains – all a child needs to do is press a button and sit back and watch passively. A passive toy that doesn’t do anything engages – a child needs to be active to enjoy it.

Or as Magda Gerber says about her recommended play objects – all passive toys: What do [they] have in common? None do anything. They will only respond when the infant activates them. In other words our active infant manipulates passive objects. In contrast, entertaining kinds of toys, such as mobiles or later on, windup toys, cause a passive infant to watch an active toy. This trains the child to expect to be amused and entertained, and sets the scene for later TV watching.

Active Toys

Active toys also include: LeapPads, stuffed animals or dolls where when you squeeze their hands they sing a song… most things with batteries.

The ultimate in active toys is a touch screen device – I-Phone, tablet, etc. I’ve written before on the benefits and downsides of screen time, but the truly amazing things about these devices is their pacifying effect. My son can do an amazing transformation from Squirmy Whiny Disturbing-the-whole-restaurant Boy to Silent Child in less time than it would take to duck into a phone booth – all I need to do is hand him my Kindle or phone. And in moments he’s thoroughly entertained by a video or app. (Here’s thoughts on how to choose well-designed age appropriate materials.)

But, I think the corollary to the statement of “the more active the toy the more passive the child” should be something like: “the more effectively a toy pacifies the child, the more actively they will protest when you try to take it away.” Silent Child turns into Wild Screaming Misery Lad when I then try to take the Kindle away, or when, god forbid, the battery dies in a public place.

I do still use active toys (including the Kindle) at times, but I also try to balance them with a lot of “passive” toys – a lot of open-ended toys that encourage exploration and engagement. And I try to give him time – plenty of uninterrupted time – to explore them.

Some fabulous open-ended materials for toddlers and preschoolers:

Magda Gerber recommends (in The Best Toys for Babies Don’t Do Anything): balls, scarves, plastic bottle, containers (cups, bowls, baskets in many sizes and shapes). Or check out Geek Dad’s list: sticks, boxes, string, cardboard tubes, and dirt. And, of course, my favorite open-ended toy: nature.

Read more about open-ended toys: Here are a couple posts from Mamas in the Making, which are about toys for the 3 – 6 month old crowd, but most of their thoughts apply through the toddler years: Our Thoughts on Open-Ended Toys and Age Appropriate Toys. Check out this video, or many of the videos on Janet Lansbury’s YouTube channel for examples of babies at play with simple open-ended items.

Have enough toys… but not too many…

It’s easy to get excited about open-ended toys. Don’t go overboard though, filling the house or classroom with stuff…

Both at home and at work, I want to be sure there aren’t too many options for kids to explore. It’s great for kids to have some choices, but too many choices are stressful and overwhelming. When faced with too many choices, instead of engaging with one, kids may run from one to the next, never settling. Or, as someone said at my in-service yesterday: “If your child spends their playtime dumping all the toys out of the bucket, that means there’s too many toys in the bucket. Put at least half of them away for now, and the child will play more with what’s left.” Often, less is more. When we give kids the chance to really engage and explore open-ended toys, it’s amazing what they can come up with.

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Just for fun: Check out this blog post on Being the Cool Kids on the Block, which talks about saying yes to your kids’ play ideas (within reasonable limits) and open-ended materials.
photo credit: ianus via photopin cc
photo credit: peterme via photopin