Screen time for children has always received a lot of controversial and bad press. Whether it’s in the form of television, smart phones or iPads. And rightly so. Our modern culture is thoroughly obsessed with instant gratification, quick fixes and the need for any and everything to be on-demand. It’s only natural to feel concern for the generation who are most affected by this form of social decay.
Where previous generations played together in the street, swung from rope swings over the local stream, ate food they had grown themselves and used a damp duster; an ever-increasing number of modern children are spending their days entranced in a Disney-fied reality (where everyone and everything is somehow rescued from the horror of their real life to magically become a Prince or a Princess with an entirely undescribed happily ever after). To these children, a fabric hand wash is little more than a setting on their washing machine. Cleaning supplies are single use (if used at all) and are thoroughly impregnated with a multitude of carcinogenic chemicals. A shocking number of children experience genuine suspicion and distrust when faced with a food that doesn’t come in a packet, have instructions or an expiration date. They (and probably their associated adult too) are completely oblivious to the origin of an egg, let alone what to do with one in the kitchen! But, really, how much of this can really be attributed to the idiot box and its associated array of obsequious, little screens?
Firstly, it seems important to acknowledge the exclusively passive nature of television watching. As much as my toddler feels the need to answer every question posed, this doesn’t represent an interaction. The programming will continue regardless of her tirade of responses and follow up questions. It’s not hard to see how the television can almost become a source of authority for children. It doesn’t invite dialogue or challenge in exchange for engagement. Acceptance without question is implied.
That said, it’s entirely possible for the television to be a successful tool for any parent. It can be used to reinforce lessons learned elsewhere in life. Or to encourage enthusiasm about upcoming events. Cooking activities, for example, are a perfect exploitation of the power of television in our home. Frankly, finding appropriate cooking activities was a challenge before I cashed in on a bit of telly charisma. With two impatient toddlers and a lack of confidence (and probable competence) in the kitchen, it often felt like the mixing bowl was mocking me. So, with the help of a bit of toddler telly gold- a simple cooking programme on series link- I have managed to revolutionise cooking time. I have a weekly scan watch to see if there are any dishes featured that my children might enjoy making and then I choose one. The night before the little people are going to cook, I play the relevant programme for them. This helps me create a context and a buzz to get them excited about their cookery. They love having some ideas and expectations about the process before we start. The experience of making the food they saw on the box not only consolidates their learning but exponentially increases their enjoyment.
Then there is the all too common accusation that screen time stops children sleeping. This is something I hear regularly and, if I’m honest, it sounds to me like screen time has just become a scape goat for sloppy parenting. After all, there are a multitude of reasons why a child may have difficulty sleeping which involve excessive or inappropriate technology time. But the screen time itself is unlikely to be the root of the problem. A classic example, is children who are parked in front of the television instead of being offered time outdoors, interactive games, learning activities or time with their peers. And yes, I would expect those children to have trouble sleeping. Partly through lack of stimulation but primarily because of a lack of activity. I honestly believe that if I collapsed into the couch all day, regardless of how I chose to fill the time, I would have difficulty sleeping too. Another example of technology use taking the fall for poor parenting choices, is when a child is unable to sleep because of the type of screen time to which they are exposed. Content which is deemed inappropriate for a child’s age and stage of development can also keep them awake at night. This type of screen time scenario signifies a threat to children on many levels, the least concerning of which is probably the interruption to their sleep. In either case, the screen time does not play a causal role in the problem.
“Children who watch telly don’t learn to talk.” This is another screen time slam to which I’m frequently subjected. And in all honesty, when I heard it with my first child, I took it to heart. I worked hard to hide my precious offspring from the perils of Peppa Pig and the trauma of Thomas The Tank Engine. Only to discover that, for my child at least, the complete opposite was true. As I became too fat and too tired when pregnant with my second baby to last the whole day with out any telly time, I relented and allowed my toddler a bit of evening viewing. To say I was shocked to see the rate at which her vocabulary grew was an understatement. I realised I had been missing a very important trick. Luckily, it didn’t take me long to catch up. I gladly put together a selection of pre-watched and pre-approved television programmes to help my toddling terror with various areas of her development.
And the explosive rate of language acquisition was not the only benefit of the introduction of a little regular screen time. The number of new concepts and new motivations she discovered during telly time blew my mind. She became interested in how things were made, where things came from and a whole array of concepts such as jobs and schools which I hadn’t really thought to discuss.
And then there was the bonding my daughter and I experienced as we climbed on the sofa together to watch her Learning Songs, Peppa Pig and Toc Toc Toc (French language). This facet of screen time was something quite unexpected for me. The delight she experienced when I laughed at different parts of the programme to her or when I sang along to the songs was nothing short of heart-warming. We also started some foreign language television with the intention of simply hearing the sounds (the logic being- it’s not about the child learning to speak the language but simply being exposed to the sounds of another language. This familiarity with the sounds is their secret weapon when starting to learn the language later in life and a gift that no one can take from them) but my toddler was more than triumphant when she discovered that she knew more about what was happening on Toc Toc Toc than me. (It probably goes without saying that after one series we moved on to Dora The Explorer so that she could hear some Spanish language without being a complete and utter smarty pants!)
So, really it seems to me that screen time isn’t much different to anything else in life. Moderation and context have always been the key. Allowing children unrestricted or uncensored access to technology time will be detrimental to their development. That said, denying children any access to a cultural norm, such as screen time, is also not doing them many favours. After all, children who’ve already spent all their energy chasing balls, dogs and other children, would spend their evening staring blankly into space or struggling with the bad temper of tiredness. In this instance, surely the passive learning and confirmation of cultural context that takes place during screen time is a bonus and not a blight?
Xx Allergy Mama