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My children have screentime and I’m OK with it

By Dr Kristy Goodwin 6 min read
Thursday, June 06, 2019

Letting kids use the iPad isn't as bad as you think.

When talking to fellow mums in seminars or at soccer training, I’ve noticed so many of them suffering from what I call “techno-guilt”: the pangs of guilt experienced when we hand over the iPad or gaming console, or when we let our kids watch another clip on YouTube.

There are several reasons why so many mums suffer from (unnecessary) techno-guilt. First, we are the first generation of parents navigating the digital terrain with our kids and we therefore have no frame of reference. Today’s kids often learn to tap, swipe and pinch before they’ve learnt to ride a bike or grip a pencil. This is very different to the analogue childhoods we experienced.

Most of us spent our childhoods unplugged and staring at the sky, not a screen. So our natural tendency is to worry about a childhood filled with screentime, because it’s very different to the childhood we experienced. We assume that because it’s different, it must be “bad” for them. That’s simply not the case.

The second reason we’re plagued with techno-guilt is because we’re bombarded by news reports and headlines that claim screentime is toxic and harmful for kids. Headlines that suggest screens are akin to “digital cocaine” (such as “Giving your child a smartphone is like giving them a gram of cocaine, says top addiction expert”) are misleading and cause unnecessary moral panic. We have blog posts and social media posts that (ironically) perpetuate these neuro-myths about kids, teens and screens.

As a researcher in this field, I want to assure you that this is not what the neuroscience tells us at this point in time. These headlines are inflammatory, incite parental panic and over-inflate the research findings or misrepresent what the statistics and data actually reveal. (Most of the research that we have with kids, teens and screens doesn’t prove causation. Most of the studies available at present show a correlation between screens and adverse development and health impacts. This is very different to research that “proves” that technology is the cause of these issues).

Sadly, studies showing the positive impact of technology and its effect on kids and teens is often overlooked by the media and doesn’t make for good clickbait. So it’s little wonder that mums are left riddled with techno-guilt.

Parents need to establish boundaries around what, when, where and how their kids use screens . . .

Technology is neither “good” nor “bad”. It really depends on how frequently it’s used and the context in which it’s being used (what are they doing on screens, when, where, how and with whom are they using technology). Rather than focusing exclusively on how much time kids are spending online, we need to have a much more nuanced conversation, beyond simply asking whether screentime is “bad” for kids.

There’s no denying research confirms that excessive screentime can compromise kids’ and teens’ health and wellbeing. For example, studies consistently show that “too much” screentime can adversely impact on kids’ and teens’ sleep, physical movement levels, language and social skills, as well as their fine and gross motor skills.

It’s a simple opportunity cost—if kids are spending too much time with pixels, it limits the available time they have to meet their essential developmental priorities.

We also know that prematurely dunking kids in the digital stream (such as handing your smartphone over to your toddler every single time they throw a tantrum or declare that they’re bored, or allowing your tween to have an Instagram account before they’re 13 years of age) can be detrimental to their ongoing development and wellbeing.

The neuroscience confirms that young children can’t learn from screens until they’re somewhere between 18 and 36 months of age, as their brain can’t translate what’s on a 2D screen and match it to the 3D world. We also know that social media places incredible demands on young people. Introducing them to it too early can place them at unnecessary risks and may adversely impact their mental health.

However, we also have research that confirms that technology can support, not stifle, kids’ learning and wellbeing. When technology is used in moderation, if it’s age appropriate and used in intentional ways with firm boundaries, it can be helpful. Equally, if it’s used excessively or they’re playing games or apps that aren’t age-appropriate, or if they’re using devices before sleep time, then screentime can be harmful.

Five things mums can focus on to eradicate techno-guilt

As mums, we need to stop obsessing over how much time our kids are plugged in to devices or worrying that we’re doing our kids a disservice by handing over devices. Instead, we need to help our kids develop healthy technology habits.

Whether you love it or loathe it, the reality is that your kids and teens will inherit a digital future, so they need to learn how to use technology in sustainable and supportive ways. Banning devices or limiting their access won’t allow them to develop these fundamental skills.

In my parent seminars, I encourage parents to be the pilot and not the passenger of the digital plane. As the pilot, parents need to establish firm, consistent boundaries about how much time their kids spend with digital devices, but they also need to consider other essential questions that go beyond simply using time as the only metric. Parents need to establish boundaries around what, when, where and how their kids use screens, to ensure that their digital habits are healthy and not harmful. And in doing so, they can put an end to their guilt.

1. How much

We do have government guidelines regarding recommended amounts of screentime. While it’s critical that parents enforce limits around how much time children and teens spend with devices (especially if it’s impacting on their sleep, social, and language and motor skills), what’s more important is to consider the displacement effect. If their basic developmental needs are being met, then we can allow screentime and not be riddled with techno-guilt—the time they’re having with technology isn’t interfering with their basic developmental needs.

2. What

The use of high quality, educational digital content has been shown to support kids’ and teens’ learning. There is a wealth of developmentally-appropriate learning apps, TV shows, games (yes, gaming can be a brilliant learning platform), programs and interactive toys that have been specifically designed to foster kids’ learning and development.

The Office of the eSafety Commissioner’s iParent portal, Common Sense Media and the Australian Council on Children and the Media offer reviews of apps, TV programs, games and movie content suitable for children and teens. Ensuring your child has access to age-appropriate digital content can help parents ditch the techno-guilt.

3. When

Establishing boundaries around when screens can be used is vital. The 60–90 minutes before sleep time (or nap time if you still have a little one) should be screen-free, as the blue light emitted from tablet devices and smartphones delays the onset of sleep because the body can’t produce sufficient melatonin, the sleep hormone.

Before bedtime, audio books or music are much better alternatives. Rapid-fire, fast-paced screen action should also be avoided before childcare or school, as it overloads the sensory and nervous systems, making it difficult for students to pay attention in class. If parents enforce boundaries around when their kids can access screens, we can drop the guilt.

4. Where

Identifying no-go tech zones in your house from a young age is critical if we want to help our kids develop healthy technology habits. I recommend bedrooms, meal areas (eating in front of a screen displaces opportunities for language and social interaction, and screen use with meals has been shown to promote mindless eating in children), play areas, bathrooms and cars (for short trips) as tech-free spaces. This helps to ensure kids’ and teens’ online safety (kids are very unlikely to be chatting to an online predator or sending nude photos when they’re snuggled up next to you on the lounge) and alleviates the pangs of guilt parents feel when they hand over the gaming console or touchscreen device.

5. How

Research confirms that we’re seeing increasing rates of children and adolescents presenting with myopia (near-sightedness), musculoskeletal issues (such as “tech neck” or “gaming thumb”) and the risk of noise-induced hearing loss (from wearing ear-bud headphones that exceed recommended decibel levels for children). If parents help their children use digital devices in ergonomic and healthy ways, this can appease some of the guilt that’s often associated with handing over technology.

Technology is a wonderful tool that can support our kids’ learning, wellbeing and health. Technology isn’t toxic and it shouldn’t be taboo. We need to teach our tech-savvy kids how to tame their tech habits, so they can leverage the benefits. And the best way to do this is to allow our kids to actually have screentime.

Watch Dr Kristy explain why screentime for kids is good.

Dr Kristy Goodwin is a digital wellbeing and productivity speaker, researcher and author of Raising Your Child in a Digital World. She is also mum to three boys (and yes, they do throw techno-tantrums).