My husband and I recently took our baby daughter with us to a South African consulate to submit a visa application. The others in the waiting room were mostly families, and even the youngest children had their own smartphones or tablets. Of course, the bureaucratic monotony of the situation explains a great deal, but I wondered how often this scene is repeated in their living rooms.
Our daughter, now nine months old, is our first child. I’ll admit I have no idea how to be a good parent. But limiting our daughter’s screen time is one issue my husband and I care about deeply.
Since I’ve started paying attention, I’ve been amazed to see how many babies around me get extensive screen time, both direct and indirect. I had assumed people generally agreed that’s a bad idea. How wrong I was.
Tuned-In Parents Limit Screen Time
I regularly notice parents watching their own TV shows or movies in the same room as their babies. That’s problematic, but even more disturbing are the growing number of shows and apps aimed at babies and toddlers. Fisher-Price’s “Laugh & Learn” apps, which are intended for babies, have been downloaded more than 3 million times. These apps are often free, but, according to the product description, “come to life” when used with matching toys parents can buy.
BabyFirst is a 24-hour TV channel for babies. It has more than 40 accompanying apps. One such app allows kids to make drawings on a mobile device that interacts with BabyFirst shows, thus exposing a child to two screens at the same time.
While the rise of shows and apps for babies feels unstoppable, some parents are bucking the trend. Last year, The New York Times reported that parents with high-level positions in Silicon Valley, including the late Steve Jobs, limit their kids’ access to the devices and software they create. Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired, said he and his wife impose strict screen-time limits for their five children because “we have seen the dangers of technology first hand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”
These days, I would be hard-pressed to find a single little girl who doesn’t own at least one piece of “Frozen” merchandise. Yet the woman who voices Princess Anna, actress Kristen Bell, has two daughters who are not allowed to watch the movie. She said in an interview with Us Weekly that she strictly limits screen time for her girls, then aged two years and six months, “so they don’t become sedentary and used to zoning out to videos.”
One of the strictest bans I’ve heard of is enforced by “Homeland” actor Damian Lewis. His two children, aged 9 and 8, are not allowed any screen time at all during the week and only 10 minutes on a computer on Saturdays and Sundays.
Lewis’ wife, actress Helen McCrory, said in an interview, “There’s a whole generation of children growing up who don’t seem able to express themselves. They are not actually experiencing the putting the ink in the pen, putting the pen to paper, thinking about what they are going to say, looking up the words they want to say it with.” She and Lewis encourage their children to write their thoughts and use a thesaurus and dictionary to find the right words.
How Screen Time Gets Physical
What are these parents so worried about? All sorts of things. There are the dangers of cyber-bullying and inappropriate content. The sedentary nature of screen time increases the risk of obesity. Hours of slumping over devices harms neck and back development. Last year, a British teachers’ association warned of the increase in preschoolers who can swipe a screen but cannot stack building blocks. This damages children’s minds and bodies for life, because early motor skills provide crucial brain development. The light from screens desynchronizes kids’ body clocks and disrupts their sleep, so they arrive at school too tired to learn.
Screen time also harms a child’s social development. A study from the University of California-Los Angeles found that after going screen-free for five days, children were much better at reading other people’s emotions. Young children learn through creative play and interaction with other human beings, especially their parents. Time in front of a screen is time away from that.
I admire Lewis and McCrory’s tough stance on screens, but I doubt we can be that strict with our daughter. In the same interview, McCrory notes that her family employs a live-in nanny. I’m willing to bet that Bell and the Jobs family also have child-care professionals on staff. That makes it much easier to enforce a screen-free lifestyle.
Train Your Child’s Habits Early
Even parents who fully grasp that screens aren’t good for their kids will sometimes use one as an “electronic babysitter.” Kids are exhausting. Like any baby, my daughter requires constant attention. When I’m tired, I sometimes wish there was a way to get her to sit quietly for just 20 minutes while I rest or accomplish a few tasks. McCrory and Lewis can hand their kids to a nanny at that point. For many other parents, putting in a DVD is the answer.
So far, I’ve managed to resist temptation. Right now, we’re banning screens altogether, but we will probably loosen up a bit when our daughter is older. Research shows screen time is at its most dangerous when children are babies and toddlers. The American Academy of Pediatrics says, “Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.”
It’s only common sense. Young children who are just learning to speak shouldn’t be exposed to all sorts of flashing images they don’t understand.
I was raised without screens until I reached the age of seven, at which time I became a regular viewer of “Eureka’s Castle” on Nickelodeon. I don’t think that hindered my ability to express myself. My main concern for my daughter for her to grow up considering a TV show or video game to be a special treat and not as her primary entertainment.
Leading By Example
Next to the temptation to use a device as an electronic babysitter, my biggest challenge is my own screen time. After all, the example I set is my most powerful teaching tool. I use my iPhone all day long to take photos of the baby for her international fan club of grandparents, aunts, and uncles. If I’m holding my phone anyway, it’s hard not to take a quick peek at Facebook. Trying to raise a screen-free baby has exposed how much time I spend on social media.
The body of research showing the harmful effects of screen time for children is growing. There is less research about its impact on adults, but what there is suggests the effects are similar. There are the health problems—obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease—that result from being sedentary. The light from screens disrupts our bodies’ natural sleeping patterns. Social media can be addictive, in the clinical sense. The latest research shows that social media can make us miserable and isolate us from other people. The list of harms goes on and on.
If I’m going to be strict with my daughter about screen time, I have to start by being strict with myself. I’ve installed an app called Leechblock on my laptop to block my access to social media during the day. I’ve deleted all social media apps from my phone.
Life Has So Much More to Offer
I’m trying to train my daughter to find her entertainment in screen-free activities. We read baby books together every day. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends reading to babies from birth. This is good for my daughter’s development, but it’s also just a lot of fun for both of us.
My daughter loves when I read her books, sing nursery rhymes, or take her on walks. I only remember a few songs from my own childhood, but I found plenty of new ones on YouTube. The videos often include lyrics, which helped me memorize them quickly. I take my daughter for a walk every day. When she’s a bit older, I hope she’ll love playing outside. I’ll try to encourage tactile play, such as with water and sand.
In any home, there are plenty of screen-free tasks like cooking and cleaning that families need to complete each day. I try to ensure my daughter observes me engaged in those. When she’s older, I will try to find age-appropriate ways to get her involved.
In recent months, I’ve developed the habit of reading a book in the evening while I sit with my daughter as she drifts off to sleep. This is time I’d normally spend zoning out to Facebook. It started when I was thinking of ways to be a good role model, but it’s become one of the enjoyable parts of my day. Having a brief period each night to read a book for pleasure is an oasis of calm after a long day of caring for a baby.
I’m lucky that my daughter is still blissfully unaware of the fun you can have with screens. She takes a keen interest in my phone, but I think that’s because of the bright blue cover. Her primary goal is to put it in her mouth. But I’m happy for her to think of a phone as something to chew on. If only I could keep it that way.
Simple Ways to Reduce Screen Time
- Prioritize keeping your child 100 percent screen-free during his or her first two years. Research shows this is when screens do the most harm.
- For older children, set clear limits on screen time and ban screen use in bedrooms.
- Keep your TV set in a room where children do not spend much time or toss it out and watch online.
- Wait until your child is asleep to watch your own shows.
- Do not use your device while holding your child.
- Don’t download a baby or toddler app. These provide no benefit and may actually be harmful.
- Be a role model and curb your own social media use. There are some great apps that can help. Check out Leechblock, Freedom, AntiSocial, or Dark Room.
- Read aloud to your child every day. This is beneficial even for babies. Your local library will offer a broad selection of books suited to your child’s age.
- Children love music. Sing nursery rhymes together.
- Take a baby or young child outside for a walk every day when the weather allows. Encourage older children to play outdoors.
- Sensory activities are great for children of all ages. Kids love playing in water and sand. On rainy days, let them sift through rice or dry beans, both of which are cheap and easy to sweep up.
- Involve children in screen-free household tasks in an age-appropriate way.