We are raising a generation of digital natives: children are born into a world with instant internet access, touchscreens, apps and technology that reaches nearly every area of their lives from birth. The scientific evidence is pretty clear – too much screen time is not great for kids, especially children younger than five years old. But limiting technology in the home when it is so pervasive everywhere else can be challenging.
What's a concerned parent to do? If you're tired of fighting the uphill battle over screens and tech in your home, the following tips can help you strike a healthy balance.
Why it matters
The research on the long-term effects of excessive screen time on child development is still very new. However, we do have plenty of evidence available right now which makes it clear that limiting screen time is a good thing.
Studies have shown that watching certain types of shows may make it harder for kids to control themselves and that overexposure to technology can lead to attention problems, sleep disruption and physical changes in the brain.
Screens are also addicting. How many times a day do you find yourself mindlessly reaching for your phone or tablet? How many hours of television do you watch in a typical week? If self-regulating screen time is this hard for us, imagine how much more difficult it is for a child who's still developing.
While some experts and parents believe that the best solution is to simply ban electronics for children in the home altogether, many would suggest that this just isn't realistic anymore. Technology isn't going anywhere. It's in our kids' classrooms, their friends' homes, their after-school activities – and it will play a significant role in their futures.
Instead of prohibiting screens completely, teaching children to regulate their screen time will allow them to develop a healthy relationship with technology.
The problem with hard limits
If negotiations over tech in your home have become a daily headache, it can be tempting to try to impose some hard-and-fast limits, such as no screens on school nights or only 30 minutes of TV per day. Limits like these can absolutely work in some families, but they can also introduce troublesome gray areas that can make things more complicated.
For example, if you ban screens completely during the week, what happens if your child has a homework assignment that requires that they do research online, watch a video or use an app? If you limit television to 30 minutes per day but you have three children who like shows that clash, what then?
Setting hard limits also removes the element of self-regulation, an important component for kids trying to develop a balanced approach to technology. If someone else is always telling them what and when to watch, it may be harder for children to internalize that skill. On the other hand, when given freedom, they'll likely choose to binge on screen time simply because no one is telling them when to stop.
A more realistic approach may be to limit the shows and apps your child is exposed to, and to give kids an opportunity to make empowered choices about their screen time.
You know what's best for your child and what kinds of media you feel comfortable allowing in your home. The first part of this solution is to choose age-appropriate shows, movies, apps and video games that support your child's development, and make it clear that any new show or app they’re interested in has to get your approval first.
The second part is to offer choices within an acceptable boundary. Rather than use tech as a reward, create a system that lets your child decide how and when to use the screen time you've deemed appropriate. Make tickets or tokens that represent a time limit, decide how many your child can "spend" per day, then allow them to use the vouchers when they want. Once their tickets for the day are used up, screen time is done for the day.
This approach tends to be a win-win: as a parent, you've established boundaries that work for your family, while your child is learning important lessons about choice, self-control and planning.
Technology can be a wonderful tool for children. There are so many great shows, apps and games designed to help kids with language, reading, math, problem-solving and much more. Time spent in front of a screen doesn't have to be mindless entertainment. As parents, we have the power to help our kids learn the skills they need to develop a healthy, balanced approach to technology that will benefit them now and well into the future.