From toddlers with touchscreens to tweens and texting, one of the hottest topics among parents and educators today is the proper role of digital media in children’s lives. Although their recommendations are slated for revision this year, the American Academic of Pediatrics (AAP) currently recommends no more than two hours of screen time per day for children and teens, and none at all for infants under age two.
The revisions come from AAP’s 2015 Media Symposium, “Growing Up Digital,” which acknowledges technological innovation as a basic reality of our kids’ lives. For pint-sized “digital natives” (the ones who can hack parental controls faster than you can figure them out), even the phrase “screen time” is outdated: Nearly 38 percent of infants use mobile devices, 73 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds have smartphones, and the average kid spends seven hours a DAY in front of screens.
Let’s be honest. Even if the new AAP guidelines are generous, seven hours a day is a lot of time for a kid to spend on anything, especially when that thing has accelerated so rapidly we’re still waiting for the research to catch up.
But before you freak out and flip to your Facebook feed, remember these key points to put things in perspective:
Too much of anything (even a good thing) can be a bad thing. Excessive media use leads to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, obesity, addictive behavior, anxiety, and underdeveloped social skills. Like “junk food,” a bit of “junk media” has its place, but too much is problematic.
Parenting involves setting limits, plain and simple, from diet to sleep to screen media. Your child’s brain is more like a sponge than a filter. It absorbs information easily, but isn’t as skilled at wading through that information to make wise decisions. YOU are your child’s filter.
The media IS the message. Educational games and apps have their place, but the channel itself speaks louder than the content, especially for kids under two. Our brains respond differently to an electronic device than to a physical object or live human person. And since your baby’s brain is still rapidly developing, too much electronic engagement can literally change the way that tiny brain forms.
Of course, simply limiting media usage doesn’t guarantee that kids will use their time well. Try these eight tricks to help get them back into creative play:
1. Stage a blast from the past!
Most kids have never heard the awful screech of a dial-up modem. Introduce your tech-savvy tweens to recent history! Pull out the flip phone, fire up that Nintendo system, or tour the monster computers at the Chippewa Falls Museum of Industry & Technology. Give your kids an increased appreciation for the ease of technology they’ve known all their (very young) lives.
2. Use media to grow closer to your kids.
Avoid the “iPacifier” and harness the power of media to strengthen your parent-child connection. For littles, try digital stories, finger plays, or video chats – whatever it is should foster two-way “talk-time” and true interaction, not just passive video. For older kids, pull up an online version of Chess, Checkers, or Battleship. Relive your childhood while they learn to strategize and handle wins or losses. Plus no tiny pieces!
3. Send kids outside!
Pretend and active play are much easier in the great outdoors. Trees become castles, rocks become royal subjects, and soon they’re begging to skip dinner to keep playing.
4. Tablets CAN’T BEAT paper, scissors, and glue!
According to teachers and occupational therapists, an increasing number of kids are entering school without the fine motor skills to grip a marker, hold paper while coloring, or use scissors to cut. Give your child time to practice with these tools. Remember mess equals success!
5. Keep objects that inspire creativity.
Avoid too many toys with lights, bells, and whistles. Cardboard boxes, blankets, Legos, dress-up clothes, blocks, and pots and pans are the seeds of your kiddo’s imagination.
6. Let kids be bored.
Boredom is the prerequisite for creativity, so fight the urge to pacify your little one’s every complaint or demand for entertainment. (In other words, relax!)
7. Put down your phone and designate media-free zones.
Believe it or not, kids notice when you ignore that notification in favor of their conversation and eye contact. What are your “talk times” with your kids? Dinner? Car rides? Bedtime? Whatever they are, keep them and keep them sacred.
8. Take family field trips!
Places like the Children’s Museum, the library, the Chippewa Valley Museum, the YMCA, and public parks are all committed to the preservation of screen-free free-play.
Parenting is a big ol’ adventure, and the rise of digital media has thrown in a few detours, but we still only get so much time with our little ones before they’re not so little anymore. Teach your kids to enjoy technology, but don’t be afraid to remind them that friendship can be found outside of Facebook, “likes” don’t change how much they’re loved, and sometimes the very best play station is waiting right in their own backyard.