Screen time is a fact of life. Like the rest of their families, most babies, toddlers, and preschoolers in this country watch videos and play with computer games and apps—and they enjoy it. And many parents struggle with that fact. We agonize over the amount of screen time our kids get and fear its impact. We judge ourselves by the hours spent or unspent in front of the TV or computer, and we judge others.
Parents need breathers, and parents need showers and a video can grant you a little time—no one, we said, is going to die if you “plop the kid down” in front of a video or the television once in a while.
And how many times a day does the average parent hand over a cell phone to a child in a stroller, in line at the grocery store, at a restaurant, or in the car seat? It’s a research study waiting to happen.
There are mixed messages from psychologists, the American Academy of Pediatrics and others out there when it comes to screens and kids, here are four tips that encourage a balanced approach:
1. Use screens to enhance reading together, not to replace it. It’s obvious that a video doesn’t replace a bedtime book, but the app and ebook options are more tempting, and less clear. Reading together is sharing—but tapping the laundry basket icon to make a cat appear over and over again is more akin to singular play than reading books. If you’ve set out to read one on one with your child, then read.
2. Encourage sociability. No one would ever tell you to stop handing your child a board book in a restaurant—why are we suggesting that the Cat in the Hat app is any different? Consider this: anywhere your toddler expects to get that phone—whether it’s serving as book, video player, or game—your preschooler, and then your child, will expect to be engaged by a gadget. If there are people around, let’s talk.
3. Plan for a “Balanced Media Diet.” Too many apps and not enough books isn’t good for you, just like too many carbs and no protein isn’t healthy either. While books are great, kids also need to play with blocks and play dough and run around outside. Even Cookie Monster has declared that a cookie is a “sometime thing.” While Cookie Monster’s evolution may border on sacrilegious, screens, too, are “sometime things.”
4. Look for ways to make screens about reading. When the little screens are in their hands, or the big ones are calling for their attention, do look for ways to connect the world on-screen and the world of reading together. Favor ebooks over apps for reading together, and apps that develop literacy over those that don’t (more on that in the app section). Choose videos that spring from books over those that don’t.