Screen time. It is almost taboo nowadays to say that you give your kids any screen time. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) released guidelines recommending parents to limit screen time for children under 5 years old. And for children under the age of 2, WHO advocated for zero screen time.
Less is better. — World Health Organization
There are tons of research that back WHO’s recommendations, linking increased screen time to possible issues like an increased risk for inattention problems like ADHD; the prevalence of adiposity and insulin resistance and increases in depressive symptoms and suicidal tendencies.
The modern-day situation
In the current digitally connected world where we spend an ever-increasing amount of time on digital devices, it can be hard for many parents to enforce a zero screen time policy on their kids. Most parents that I meet and speak to fall into one of these two groups:
- I limit my kids’ screen time as much as possible and use it as a distraction tool when I have no choice
- I give my kids screen time but I feel guilty and afraid of being labeled as an irresponsible parent
I belong to both the first and the second group. My firstborn, Arielle had her first interaction with screen time when she was three months old. We were vacationing in chilly Seoul and she was crying non-stop in our hotel room. With only three months of experience being parents, my wife Petrine and I were at a loss of what to do and didn’t know what was causing her to cry. The only thing I could do was to babywear her and try to lull her to sleep.
As I was walking around the hotel room in circles, I realized that she stopped crying at a particular spot in the room and would resume crying as I walked away. The a-ha moment came to me when I realized that she stopped crying because she was distracted by the muted TV on the wall in that particular spot. As I progressed along my parenting journey, I realized that her crying was probably due to the lack of sleep but we’ll leave that story for another day.
When we discovered that Arielle would be distracted by these moving images, it was like a godsend. We made sure to use this “magic pill” sparingly and only out of necessity. The only other time that we used it as a distraction was during car rides. For some unknown reason, Arielle went through a period where she would cry immediately when the car moved.
As an extremely bad driver, the constant wailing was too much for me to handle. We tried changing car seats multiple times, changing seat locations, changing seat directions but to no avail. We even thought of changing cars but budget was a constraint. Suddenly we thought that maybe we should just let her watch some videos during the car ride. Voila! I could finally regain my focus and drive in peace.
Using screen time as a distraction tool was an easy way out for us. All we had to do was switch on some videos and watch the magic happen. That magic captivated her for a while until she learned that Youtube was video-on-demand and she could skip any videos she disliked. Because the screen was mounted on a phone holder where she couldn’t reach from her car seat, Petrine and I became her pseudo remote controls. Whenever the video wasn’t to her liking, she would yell for us to skip to the next one. Sometimes, she would even sing a song that was beyond recognizable for us and demand to hear it again on Youtube.
Where on earth can we find that song? We’re not Shazam!
Embracing screen time
Petrine and I quickly realized that this was a problem. Using screen time as a distraction tool only provided momentary relief. It was not sustainable. At the same time, we knew it was impossible to completely remove screen time from her life. Instead of lamenting about her ridiculous demands, we thought — perhaps we should teach her some life skills. This prompted the first rule in her life:
Setting the rule also helped us in many other areas of our lives because it applied to any request that she had. The episode taught her how to be polite and within a couple of days, she was asking nicely for anything she wanted (including for us to skip a track on YouTube)
At the same time, Petrine and I also did more research into screen time. Both of us got exposed to technology early on in our lives and firmly believe that there are more positives than negatives for early tech exposure. As a ten-year-old, Petrine spent a couple of hours a day in front of the computer typing HTML code into her now-defunct Neopets Petpage. True story — I’m still pretty in awe every time I tell this story.
Her design and coding experience gave her a headstart in her working life now as a user experience designer. As we look back, we both agreed that it was the early tech exposure that propelled her into one of the most illustrious industries in the current world.
Back to the research bit, while there are many studies discouraging screen time for kids, there are also multiple studies supporting the possible benefits of screen time. Toddlers who were exposed to early touch-screen usage, specifically scrolling of the screen, tend to achieve their milestones for fine motor skills earlier. When it comes to physical benefits, kids who play video games like Nintendo Wii or XBOX Kinect expend more energy and have increased physical activity. Most of the research studies discouraging screen time also present correlation instead of causal effects. This means that while increased screen time is linked to increased depression symptoms, it doesn’t mean that screen time causes depression. Given the length of time that research studies require to produce credible results, I think we are still far away from a decisive conclusion on this debate.
Moving beyond nostalgia
Humans are comforted by familiarity and it can be hard for many parents to embrace the changes that technology has brought into our lives, especially in parenting. We are often afraid of causing irreversible damage to our children’s lives through the choices that we make as parents. That’s why we thread carefully and steer towards the “if something is not broken, why fix it?” mentality. If we spent our formative childhood years playing in outdoor sand playgrounds, why can’t our kids do the same?
We’re all familiar with the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Along with the proverb came concepts of play as a crucial component of early childhood education. The importance of learning through play was a prominent feature in the last two centuries which is why you now see children playgrounds at the corner of every HDB estate. We have Friedrich Froebel, a German educator to thank for this. In the 1800s, before he popularized the concept of children needing playtime, most children worked in factories and birthday celebrations were non-existent.
Imagine if parents of the 1800s insisted on leveraging their children only as labor resources, I wonder what would have become of us today. As we look towards the next century, technology will be a key part of our children’s childhoods and their children’s childhoods. Technology will change the way they transfer knowledge, consume information and interact with one another. If we as parents don’t keep up with the times, we not only limit their potential to thrive in a digital-first world, we also risk losing the sense of connection with our kids.
Instead of believing that technology is destroying a generation, I believe that if we can’t let go of our nostalgia, we are ruining our kids’ abilities to adapt to a future where technology is omnipresent.
Mitigating possible issues
Along with the increased use of technology, our children also consume media at an unprecedented rate. Whether it is watching videos or playing games or using social media, there are bound to be risks involved.
- Reports of disturbing YouTube videos bypassing kid-safe filters emerged in 2017. Some of these videos (likely made by Internet trolls) have suicide themes or sadistic content that are completely inappropriate for kids.
- Falling into the vicious loop of being cyberbullied and cyberbullying others in online games.
- Prevalence of online predators and sexual grooming. Instagram was the most popular app for such crimes.
- Succumbing to peer pressure and doing ridiculous things to “fit in”. The most recent stupidity is the Tik Tok Skullbreaker challenge — an ugly prank that glorifies tripping the victim and “breaking the skull”.
All of these risks have a common theme: unsupervised parenting. I don’t mean that you should stop whatever you’re doing right now and start watching your kid like a hawk from now on. In fact, I very much prefer free-range parenting compared to helicopter parenting.
To mitigate all of these risks, all you have to do is to be an involved parent.
Don’t use technological tools purely as a distraction.
Be involved and informed.
I’ve seen many parents turn on the TV for their kids and carry on with what they were initially doing (eg work, household chores or even scrolling on their social media). Sometimes they set a time limit, sometimes the limit is based on whenever the parents finish what they were doing. When the time is up, they promptly turn off the TV and move along their scheduled lives. When the kids throw tantrums at their parents for abruptly turning off their TV, they start lamenting and associating these negative behaviors with screen time. Sounds familiar?
Being involved simply means putting in some effort to sit down with your kids for a part of the TV session. It can be 5 mins, 10 mins or even the entire duration if you want. Having this “shared experience” with your kids helps to create common topics and ultimately creates a sense of closeness. It also helps you understand your kids better in terms of their likes and dislikes.
In my case, I usually sit with Arielle for at least the first and last 5 mins of the TV session. The first 5 mins are for me to vet the content and make sure that she’s watching age-appropriate videos. The last 5 mins are for me to find out what she has been watching and give her a heads up that she’ll need to stop watching soon. At 3-years old, she still hasn’t quite mastered how to tell time yet. Telling her “5 more minutes” won’t work. What I typically do is tell her that this will be her last song or video, that has worked well so far.
Through these short snippets, I also learned about how her preferences changed over time. When she first started watching YouTube videos, it was all about Baby Shark and Wheels On The Bus. Nowadays, she’s into pretend play videos that feature young Youtube stars like Nastya, Alice, and Diana. Wherever possible, I also sit through some of the videos with her and watch them together. You’ll be surprised at how some of these videos have a lot of interesting educational content. She learned rituals like how you need to put a plaster when you have a wound; using a fever patch when you have a fever and even washing your hands with soap (which is very applicable in this COVID-19 situation). As parents, we can help our kids retain much of these content by asking relevant questions and having discussions about them.
Being informed of the latest trends is also important, especially in the age of social media. We are often too quick to dismiss the happenings in our kids’ lives as childish or unimportant. Keeping abreast of the latest trends in their world helps us to provide timely advice. Arielle is still too young for social media now. However, if she was older and had active social media interactions, I would use the earliest opportunity I have to educate her on the ridiculous Skullbreaker challenge before she fall victim to that (quite literally). As our kids grow along with the digital age, so must we.
As Arielle got more acquainted with screens and online media, we started introducing digital games to her. She now plays a variety of games like Cake Maker; Hello Kitty Lunchbox and Disney Junior’s Sophia Princess Dressup on our old iPad. Such games provide a sandbox environment to foster creativity. She gets to mix and match all the different cake ingredients or dress Sophia up in different costumes. I remember telling her to take a snapshot of every cake that she “baked” and every variation of Sophia’s costume. Now I have a couple of hundreds of different cakes and fashion tips in my photo library. Through this, I also discovered her newfound fascination to be a princess — you’d see that princess dresses are a common theme in the games she plays, just like her fashion sense nowadays.
As parents, we have rules for a thousand things. Don’t do this, don’t do that. Don’t eat this, don’t eat that. You get the idea. Instead of giving a blanket rule to discourage screen time or even ban screen time totally, why not develop your own rulebook for digital engagement? It may seem like a moonshot to develop specific and detailed rules because we’re not sure how that would affect our kids. In my opinion, this is the perfect chance to inculcate our values.
Think about how our parents passed down their values to us. Their values were shaped by that of their parents as well as their own experiences in life. There were clear rules for how you should behave at the dining table (no talking while you eat), how you should speak to the elders (no talking back) and even what clothes to wear (no black clothes during Chinese New Year and no red clothes during funerals).
The digital world is something that is still pretty new to all of us. However, with what limited exposure we’ve had to digital media, I’m sure we’ve had our fair share of experiences. As parents, it is up to us to pass down these lessons that we’ve had to our children and tell them about the wonders (and dangers) of the digital world.
My rules are pretty simple. They mirror pretty much what I believe in everyday life.
1. Think twice before you do anything irreversible.
What goes on the internet, stays on the internet. We’ve all heard stories of leaked celebrity nudes. These things don’t just happen to celebrities but to basically anyone. With kids engaging in sexting at earlier ages, it is important to educate them on the permanence of the information on the internet. No nudes unless you want everyone to see it.
2. If anything is too good to be true, it probably is.
When I was 11, my Runescape account got hacked. Greedy me entered my username and password into a website promising me free items if I did it. That was one of the biggest lessons I learned in my life. This valuable experience also taught me to always double-check the authenticity of anything on the internet.
Fast forward 15 years, my mum came up to me and told me of this dude she met on Facebook. He confessed his love to her and was going to send her a box full of luxury goods. All he needed her to do was to pay an “urgent” custom tax which he promised to return to her in full afterward. Believe it or not, she thought this dude was legit even though she had never met him. If I didn’t interfere in time, she would have lost a few hundred bucks to this scammer.
There are definitely good deals on the internet but the ability to spot scams will be vital to surviving the digital world. Early exposure matters.
3. Be kind to everyone
A ton of depression cases happens because of cyberbullying. For some reason, people get more courage to harass other people when they’re behind their keyboards. Just like in the real world, most bullies became bullies because they were bullied.
To stop this vicious cycle, start teaching our kids how to be kind. There is absolutely no need to feed the ego of these bullies by retaliating online or engaging in an online fight with them. Be kind.
Raise our digital natives the right way
Like it or not, technology is taking over our lives. As we move into the Information Age, the number of technological devices in our lives grows exponentially. It is up to us as parents to teach our kids how to thrive in their generation. To do so, we have to let go of our nostalgia, embrace lifelong learning and be part of this digital transformation together with them.
This post was previously published on A Parent Is Born and is republished here with permission from the author.
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Photo credit: Caleb Tan