Kids and screens. It is a problem. Our children are growing up as digital natives, meaning they were born into a world of touchscreens and immersed in technology from a young age. It’s new– new to us as a species and new to the scientists studying this. We do not yet know what the long-term impact may be — but the evidence is clear enough today to show that we absolutely do need to limit screentime with our children, especially children under 5.
Here is a quick rundown on why it is so important.
It DIRECTLY impacts executive functioning (EF) skills in young children. Executive functioning is an umbrella term for those important self-control skills. Often EF is used to describe the cognitive side of self-control, but not always (for more on self-regulation read The Most Important Skill to Teach Children).
In a series of three studies, Lillard et al. tested children’s self-control abilities in series of tasks after showing them either a fast-paced unrealistic show (Sponge Bob Squarepants & Fan Boy and Chum Chum) or after watching a slow-paced realistic show (Arthur) or engaging in freeplay activities or book reading. Children who played or read a book scored significantly higher on self-control tasks than children who watched a TV show. Children who watched the slow paced realistic show did better on self-control tasks than children who watched a fast paced and unrealistic show.
So what does all that mean?
1. Play and book reading are superior to TV watching– we knew that.
But here is what is so interesting, when children watch fast-paced unrealistic television they are less regulated than when watching a slow-paced realistic show. I’ll also guess that watching too much TV, regardless of what kind it is, leads to less regulation. Have you ever noticed that? That your child acts more out of control after a TV session? That’s direct evidence of TV viewing affecting EF skills.
2. Screentime affects the brain.
It is likely that the loss of EF is temporary– but what is yet unknown is how much is too much and what would affect the brain over time. Some screentime is most likely fine for children over the age of two. Honestly, the question of how much is too much has not been answered and it probably depends on individual children’s sensitivities. But what is known is that we need some limits on screentime.
Screens are new to us in terms of evolution– the brain doesn’t expect it. Thus, the brain develops changes to accommodate this new experience (see also Nurture Your Child’s Brain). One way it does this is by rewiring itself to follow the quick scene changes on TV shows or in video games. There are some studies showing that exposure to TV and video games over time can lead to attention problems.
3. Screens are addicting.
It is hard for adults (much less children!) to regulate their own screen time. Very rarely has my son chosen to turn off the TV himself. It becomes a power struggle between us and a constant negotiation point. It was exhausting but necessary. I was tempted to cut out TV and other screens all together just to avoid the discussion. But, technology is a part of our lives and my son needs to learn to regulate his relationship with technology.
Two Simple and Empowering Ways to Limit Screentime
1. Limit the kinds of shows your child watches
The best shows for young children are realistic and slow-paced. Shows like Arthur and Daniel Tiger are good examples. Both of these depict characters in real-life like situations.
2. Use TV tokens to empower children to limit their own screentime
These tokens are not rewards. Technology is rewarding in and of itself. Rather they are simply to help your child remember how much TV they have watched.
This is a great example of giving your child power and choice within a boundary (a hallmark of authoritative parenting). The tokens are not rewards, they are simply there as a limit. Within that limit you child can chose when and which one they want to use.
My son gets two tokens for TV shows and one Ipad token per day. He can use them whenever he wants (within reason) and when they are used there is no more screentime that day. For us, each token is good for a 20 minute (or less show) and the Ipad token is good for 15 minutes. That means on average my son is getting an hour or less of TV per day. Today, for example, he only used the 15-minute Ipad token.
I first read about this idea on A Healthy Slice of Life (a blog I love to read!) and I absolutely love it– it has worked wonders.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why it works so well. I think it is because it puts the power in my son’s hands. He has the tokens and turns them into me when he wants. And when the show is over, he turns off the TV himself! Amazing!
All of our power struggles and negotiations have stopped completely. When the tokens are gone they are gone. He has suggested a few times that I could make more tokens, but I simply explain the reasoning to him– too much TV isn’t good and the tokens help us remember how much he has watched.
I also love the fact that the tokens are not rewards. Just like saying “no dessert until you finish all of your dinner” can create unhealthy associations with sweets (e.g., when I feel bad I eat sweets), making technology the reward “you can’t watch TV until you read a book” could create the same kinds of problems. I don’t want my son to put TV or ipad games above reading, if I do that in a reward system he will definitely do that as well.
Instead having tokens that just are (not rewards or things to take away) is a way to empower kids to be in charge of their own screen time.
It’s undeniable that technology has benefits– research has shown that children over the age of 2 can learn from TV. I think it is especially useful for supporting second language development, especially when only one member of the immediate family speaks that language. And let’s not forget that for better or worse TV gives us a break– a digital babysitter. Allows us to get something done. So, I think it is best to have technology in our lives but do so consciously with a plan and a way to regulate it. I hope this simple tip helps you do just that!
And just for fun, I created a free printable with two TV tokens and one Ipad token. Printable version here: tokens