Children and Screen Time


Screen time and children. Discuss.

“Am I,” asked my friend, “being weird and uptight about this?”

The scenario: they’d had friends over for the day. The friend’s child spent almost the entire day glued to an ipad. There was no requirement for the screen to be put aside to speak to the visitors or play with her children. Then, in the evening, the ipad screen was swapped for the TV screen.

In my view: no weirdness here. There are two things which bother me about this: the manners and the excess of screen time. Manners, we’ll leave aside for now. Screen time…now there’s an interesting discussion.
Full disclosure: in my house the ipad has fallen out of favour. When she was two/three, my daughter loved it. And thank the heavens for that on long journeys and when I was pregnant: I could lie down in bed and tuck her in next to me (as she no longer napped at lunchtime). But most of the time, we limited her use – not in a military fashion, but consciously because everything we read suggested that too much was a Bad Thing. Now, she hardly ever asks for it, which can actually be tricky: if she’s hugely tired I think 10 minutes of Topsy and Tim (sidenote: does anyone else think Mr T and T is batting way out of his league with Mrs T and T?) is no bad thing. The one-year-old is oblivious, although I suspect he would happily watch grainy footage of trains… And I am thinking about the advisability of maths apps, as I hear great things. I also cannot wait to have family film nights when the children are bigger.

I digress. My point is that we don’t frown on screen time – although, as I’m being frank, I admit that I experienced that wincing #parentingfail feeling when my daughter had what I considered “too much”. And  I read Courtney Adamo’s thoughts on TV and electronic devices (also here) and thought ‘there goes a stronger woman than I’ – and immediately felt guilty that I was using the ipad to look presentable and get everything done/the heck out of the front door some mornings (this is when I worked full time). But now my daughter is five, I recall something else another wise woman (Sarah Clark of Little Spree) once said in passing: that as her children got older, they no longer made a beeline for the television/ipad, and would rather draw/write etc. This is certainly true in our house. This morning I was downstairs before the children were awake (trying to write this!) and when my daughter came down, she wanted to build  a Lego castle with me and draw her own Pin the Tail on the Donkey game. In days past, this would not have happened.

Also, I should add that I think parenting can be so blinking hard that judging other people’s parenting choices is a road to ruin. My new maxim is courtesy of Marloe London’s Chloe Riddel: “If you and your children are all still breathing at the end of the day, you’re doing a good job”. (Read her other parenting insights here.)

When I threw this open to the floor (i.e. my learned friends), I was relieved to discover that I am pretty much on the normal scale. Alex – whilst admitting that she at times years to chuck her phone out of the window owing to the prevalence of social media – pretty much sums up the response of “everything in moderation’.

“The amount of screen time they’re allowed does fluctuate. For instance, when we’re both tired as per at the moment with a new baby, everyone is in meltdown and it’s raining outside, they’ll probably get more than if everyone has slept, it’s a lovely sunny day and everyone is in a good mood! Ditto if one of them is ill and needs to be kept quiet.” So, her boys have a TV programme after bathtime (“baths seems to revive rather than relax them, so this is a way of chilling them out”) and before books and bed. And – like pretty much everyone else – “If someone is having a strop and the others are also grumpy and I don’t have the energy to deal with it,” [if you don’t follow us on Instagram, you may not know that Alex had another beautiful boy to add her brood of blond mini gods – honestly, they are so gorgeous – and is now a mama of four boys), “I’ll sometimes let them watch a programme just to ‘break’ them out of their mood. In terms of the effect on them, I can see a definite ‘addictive thing’ going on – i.e. the more they watch, the more they want to watch, which I hate and instantly makes me want to turn it off.” The same goes for her eldest’s love of maths games on the ipad: the more he plays, the more he wants, so Alex limits it. She’s very much of the ‘you need to be bored to access your imagination’.

As is Jemima Bradley from Musings of a London Mum (who has two girls, Rose and Martha): “I do worry about the effect that screen time has on the girls, and now keep it to the weekends and limit it to 15 minutes. They become so used to having their brain occupied without having to be creative or be bored, which I think is really good for children. It’s then that they play and find their own entertainment.”

To me, Jemima sounds like she’s running a pretty impressively tight ship on this front – but then one of my friends said the same about me, when all I have done, really, is been led by the children. (If they want to craft/build towers and knock them over whilst chuckling manically, so be it.) I’m also wary of developing what Claire, mother to Theo, 2,  calls ‘treat mentality’: “My feeling about technology and TV is that, like our approach to food, a little bit of everything doesn’t hurt. So we don’t ban it, we just be relaxed and give lots of opportunity for outside play, adventures and time to be creative, too. Do I mind Theo watching an episode of Fireman Sam on the iPad while I get a job done or pack us up for a day trip? Nope. Like everything in life, it’s about balance.” (For the same reason, my five-year-old has ‘Friday Sweeties’ – a trip the corner shop after school to pick “a little something”. I had the same growing up.)

Anna, who has two boys, 5 and 7, seems pretty relaxed about screen time: her boys are allowed the ipads before getting dressed – “this stemmed from them being early risers”. (Please note: this is a recurring theme.) “And I don’t mind if they ask to watch a bit of TV after school, but that’s not daily, and they both prefer to choose programmes on iPlayer. We have some excellent maths apps – I think there are definite advantages to children using this technology.  Interestingly, at one of the school parent rep meetings, one of the mums asked for recommendations for maths programmes like this, and the head of reception made no secret that she disagrees strongly with this sort of thing for young children and blames screen time for increasingly poor communication skills. I have visited friends where their children have been glued to iPads/TV for the whole visit: not polite and unhelpful for developing social skills.”

Ah, the social skills. One of the side issues this subject threw up came via another Anna. Another mother of two  boys (5 and 2), she has one child with almost zero interest in TV (the little one) and an older boy who adores it (and always has, from 15 months). She’s had to “seriously monitor what he is allowed to watch. We’ve now banned all super heroes, ninjas, Ben 10 etc, because it had such an obvious impact on his behaviour.”

“I do find the telly is a useful tool for both boys at times,” she adds. “My boys are pretty full on and are on the go non-stop. They rarely sit down and read, draw or “do craft”. The closest we get to that is when they sit down and build Lego. There are also times when I think they are tired or need to unwind for a period of time, and I do put the telly on. I have to admit, this probably coincides with when I am cooking their dinner.” Anna also finds a screen flickering in the background anathema. Unlike Sarah, mother to Henry, 18 months, “I’ve never been a radio person, so I have the TV on a lot, because I like the the noise the background – it’s usually the news. But Henry is not remotely interested. I occasionally dream of the day when he’ll sit through something if he’s under the weather, but he’s so busy all the time.”
Ah, yes, the getting things done factor. Because there is precious little spare time with children, and even more jobs to do that before you had them. (There is definitely something wrong with that equation.)

“I wish I could spend more time playing with the kids,” says Emily of The Pink House, “but starting a business means I’m often struggling to keep to my work schedule as it is, and the iPad buys me precious time.”

“I mainly let the kids (Oscar, 6; Zac, 3) have screens (iPad and TV) either when they’re too tired to play properly and need wind-down time, or when I need to get something done/have a hangover/am not in the mood for mothering. Actually, I also use the screens as bribery, and to calm a situation down. I feel guilty about all of these situations, apart from letting them have screens when they’re tired; and actually it is pretty useful when they’re freaking out and need a bit of calm. So, like most aspects of parenting, there’s no perfect solution. And not enough hours in the day. Plus there’s the whole thing that screens are going to be a huge part of their lives so it’s a good idea for them to learn how to use them. But I’m hoping that as the boys get older and better at reading/playing together, and start doing more after-school activities, the screen time will phase out naturally. Til then, I’ll try to keep screen time to a minimum, while not beating myself up too much when they watch more than I feel is ideal.”

I am both fascinated and reassured. I am also eager to know what you do with your children? And what you consider the ‘right’ amount (does such a thing exist) of screen time?
In the meantime, I am going to remember that not all screen time is equal. And possibly worry about what on earth you do with teen (and, gulp, pre-teen) children and screen time…. I quite like the idea of all of us going off-line (Sara Cox talked about doing this in The Times) but I fear it’s unrealistic… Perhaps we can schedule ourselves (see this very interesting alternative view on the subject)? As ever, your thoughts warmly welcomed.

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