Apologies in advance if this ends up sounding like a bit of a rant. I’m just fed up. I’m tired of people sharing crap on social media without thinking. I’m tired of couch researching moms deciding that debunked documentaries about vaccines are right or that the radiation from phones will disrupt your kid’s brain development. So, the next time someone shares something about how screen time is evil, I figure this blog will serve as a way for me to give a rebuttal without leaving essay-length Facebook comments.
To be clear, I am not saying that ANYONE should consume content all day. We all need multiple stimuli throughout the day, and kids in particular have specific needs to help them develop and grow. You can check out my child development posts to read more about ways that you can help your kid grow, become a genius and generally just be awesome. But some people enjoy unwinding with video or interactive media. And to somehow make gamers, Netflix bingers and Pinterest scrollers into lesser people because of screen time use is irresponsible and untrue.
Physical Impact – Does Phone Radiation Effect Kids (or Adults)?
I honestly can’t believe that people still believe these things. Then again, considering the bizarre “documentaries” I’ve seen online, I suppose that I can. So, let’s look at the physical effects of using smartphones and tablets.
The original research into this topic looked at cell phone usage and various types of brain tumors. The research was either inconclusive or determined that there was no correlation between more phone use and more cancer. Additionally, researchers and experts acknowledge that most of the research was done using older model phones that worked on analog signals operating at higher frequencies and power levels. Digital phones have an even lower impact.
Let’s put this in some context. If you’re worried about the radiation from a phone, refusing to let your kid watch YouTube on your smartphone because of the radio waves emitted or some other concept, you should also never let your kid fly in a plane, get an arm x-ray for a broken bone or visit Colorado. All of those activities are WAY higher on the chart than smartphones or tablets. In fact, you’ll get more radiation from sleeping next to someone, or eating a banana (and how many of THOSE do we let our kids eat) than from using a tablet.
So no, phone radiation, microwaves and other invisible power emissions do not effect kids or adults.
Physical Impact – Gross Motor Skills and Fine Motor Skills
Another frequent argument is that tablets make kids sedentary. By not playing outside, or climbing and jumping and generally being kids, they miss out on the crucial motor skills development that they need. This one is a bit of a nuanced issue. Sure, sitting or lying down and watching on a tablet is sedentary. That’s sort of what parents love about it – you can get your kid to sit still and be quiet while you make dinner.
But some shows are more guilty of this than others. When Harley watching Dora the Explorer, she’s often getting up to make the train blow his whistle or whatever other activity they’re doing. She will dance along with the team at the end of a Team Umizoomi episode.
More than that, it’s about a balance. If all your kid does is watch a tablet, then sure, they will miss out on motor skills development. But the same could be said of any sedentary pastime. I was a bookworm as a kid, always found with my nose in a book. I preferred reading to going outside, I preferred reading to running around. I guess you could say that I was a pretty sedentary kid, but no one said that books and reading were bad as a result.
Some videos also spark physical interests in my kid, at least. She’ll watch a Daniel Tiger movie and decide we all need to go on a family trip, packing up her backpack and dragging me all over the house on our “trip”. She will want to “fly” around the house like an astronaut because of something she played, or jump up and down. Most kids are still pretty active, especially little ones under 5, so to imply that screen time will suddenly make them NOT want to play Ring Around the Rosie or some other game when given the opportunity is rather ridiculous.
Finally, fine motor skills can be developed in a range of ways. Drawing or writing while holding crayons, markers and other implements is important at this age. But a lot of it can come down to hand-eye coordination and observation skills, which playing games can actually improve. Again, balance here is key. If your kid only plays tablet games, you might want to encourage them to play video games, play piano or draw.
Mental and Social Impact – Does Screen Time Lower a Kid’s Attention Span?
This one is pretty controversial and has actually been around for ages. Generations of parents have worried that TV, and its new form of online videos, will lower a kid’s attention span. This can be a real concern, but it really depends on the type of content that your kid consumes. The TV that many of us grew up on, was essentially glorified marketing. Don’t believe me? Go watch “The Toys that Made Us” on Netflix and you’ll realize that He-Man, GI Joe, and most other programming was designed to sell toys first, and entertain kids second.
Programming has evolved since then. Educational shows have gone beyond Sesame Street, expanding into creations like Creative Galaxy, Tumble Leaf, Daniel Tiger and much more. Most shows last 30 minutes, divided into two sections of a little under 15 minutes, with a “real kids” or another form of interlude in the middle. Some kids can get absorbed by these shows, actually giving them more focus and attention than they might give other activities. And they really can teach your little one about a range of incredible topics, sparking new interests and answering questions better than you could.
Again, it’s a matter of balance. You don’t want your kid to binge watch shows all day. It sets them up to expect a level of stimulation that isn’t normal in daily life, leading them to become bored by other activities. However, if you have a kid who is engaged all day at preschool, or if you spend a day out at the zoo or aquarium with an amazed kid, chances are that you don’t need to worry that your kid will lose the ability to focus or give attention because you then gave them a tablet so that you could also relax.
Mental and Social Impact – Does Screen Time Reduce People’s Social Skills?
This is one that I think we’ve all seen in our own lives, and worry about particularly for older kids and teens. I noticed it when Harley was still a baby. I made it a point to put my phone away when Dean and I were hanging out, to not model distracted behavior to her. I wanted her to see HOW people can connect over a conversation, and it’s something that I continue now. Hanging out with friends and letting our kids play? We might leave our phones on the table so we can hear them ring if someone needs us, but otherwise we’re too busy chatting and having fun to worry about our phones.
I feel like this is an important thing to teach our kids. Not by taking away phones and tablets altogether. Whether you like it or not, smartphones, tablets and wearables are a part of our world. Even if you prevent your kid from having a phone or tablet, eventually they will grow up and get one. Instead of treating it like some sort of forbidden fruit, it’s far better to teach your kid how to balance being digitally connected and actually socially connected.
I never would have met my amazing local friends without social media. I wouldn’t be able to keep in touch with our friends and family on other continents without a screen. Screens and social media are tools that can be used for communication, but can also create more barriers, more toxicity and get in the way of real human friendships or connections. Instead of teaching my kid to hate technology or see it as a downfall of civilization, I think it’s important to show her the positives and how to overcome the negatives. That’s what parenting is about, right? Setting your kid up to thrive in the world they will live in, not just telling them that things were better when you were growing up.
One of the ways that I add social skills to her screen time is by engaging with her about her digital content. I’ll ask her what she’s watching. I’ll play her games with her. We will talk about an episode of a show and what she would have done, how she felt about it. It can actually improve empathy and social skills when parents do so.
In fact, it’s this very aspect that sparked my online rage. This video is the one that was shared on Facebook. It shows 4-year-olds just sitting and playing on their tablets. Once the tablets are taken away, they play together. The experts watching this say how the social play is much more important for a kid’s development. But if my kid is playing with other children for 6 hours during the day, do I need to feel bad that she comes home and watches an episode (or two, or three) of Daniel Tiger that helps her talk about her feelings? If she spends 3 hours on a play date with friends, am I supposed to worry that she comes home and asks to watch on her pad? Kids can enjoy both – it isn’t an all or nothing affair.
Also, that series goes on to highlight how young kids are when they learn to lie about eating candy. It’s about the secret lives of 4-year-olds, and screen time is just a portion of the series’ exploration. But of course, it’s the most intriguing for keyboard warriors on Facebook. (It’s not even available on the channel’s YouTube channel yet, talk about knowing your audience!)
So How Bad is Screen Time?
I think one of the most important questions to ask yourself is what would you be doing without a screen available? If you would be fighting with your kid to just play quietly so that you can cook dinner, chances are that’s not a beneficial experience for anyone involved.
Realistically, we all need downtime. After I’ve worked all day, I’m exhausted. I might be willing to play tea party with Harley for 15 minutes, but then I’m over it. I might be willing to take her to the park to play outside, but I get bored if I’m just there watching her go down the slide over and over again. I usually end up relying on MY screen time so that I can stay out long enough for her to have fun.
At some point in the evening, I’ll want to sit on the couch with my feet up and play a video game or try to watch some movie or series everyone is raving about. Harley wants to sit with me or with Dean, cuddling close or at least feeling nearby (she likes to sit in a box in Dean’s room, so I’m not sure they ever really cuddle when she’s in there). Or maybe I need to cook dinner and clean up the kitchen – sometimes she’ll pretend to do the same in her kitchen, but sometimes she’s happy to play a cooking game on her tablet or watch a video that makes her ask questions about astronomy or physics.
I know that Harley spends hours every day in preschool, playing, reading, painting, drawing, running around, and generally keeping busy. She is also tired by the end of the day. She also wants to relax, put her feet up and zone out a bit. Over stimulation isn’t good for kids or adults either. And being bored, being entertained or generally just having down time can be as valuable as all the stuff we usually consider worthwhile pastimes.
Why do some organizations still say to limit screen time so much, despite all the research? I think of it the same way I do recommendations for pregnant women. The common rules say that pregnant women shouldn’t drink at all because of fetal alcohol syndrome, shouldn’t eat sushi or soft cheese because of food born illnesses, etc. But most doctors I’ve talked to said that a couple sips of wine or beer now and then is fine, and that if you’ve always eaten sushi at reputable places, you can continue to do so. It’s about moderation, but because some people tend to go overboard, it’s better to say a blanket no and assume people will bend the rules for themselves.
So stop feeling bad for giving your kid a tablet. Stop worrying that letting them watch their favorite show is going to ruin them. And stop sharing videos that showcase this. It’s not black or white, and it’s not all or nothing.