This past summer provided ample sunshine for us to take advantage of our beautiful Pacific Northwest playground. When the sun is out, it seems that we all have a little more energy to get outside and enjoy the fresh air. When autumn decides to join us with brisk wind and chilling mist, many of us embrace the new season of pumpkin spice and cider and head indoors to bundle up. Our children engage in this pattern with us, and we face yet another winter season of trying to decide on how much to limit our children’s screen time and what to engage them with instead.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations: children birth to 18 months should have no screen media exposure other than video chatting; children 18 months to 5 years should access screen media for one hour or less each day of only high quality media that is co-watched with a parent; and children 6 and up should have limits around the type and amount of media they are watching. A key point identified by the pediatrics academy is that sleep, physical activity and other healthy behaviors should not be impacted by media.
Parents typically acknowledge the need to limit media, however, find challenge in supporting kids in figuring out what to do instead. There are so many screen-centered activities that are fun, engaging and that call to children in competition for their time. That competition can be exhausting. Parents are often tired by the end of the day with a list of tasks they need to accomplish before bed. Realistically, there is rarely enough time in a day to get everything done in addition to mustering enough energy to save our children from our resignation to their demands of media binging. There is hope.
Sleep, physical activity and other healthy behaviors should not be impacted by media.
Do not underestimate the power of your positive attention on your child or the impact of their attention on you. It is easy to talk ourselves out of spending special time with our children because of dinner, dishes, bills and laundry, etc. You don’t have to devote the entire evening to giving children your undivided attention. Short increments of time sprinkled in through the evening can go a long way for your relationship with your child and their ability to find activities that don’t involve screens. Parents also experience positive outcomes from time spent with their children including reduced stress and more energy.
Check-ins are one way to give attention and also to stay connected to your kids. Some families have a ritual of checking in when they connect after school/work or during dinner to discuss their day. Parents can support this effort by modeling sharing about some things that happened in their own day. Avoiding criticism and finding ways to reinforce things that are going well or good choices that are expressed is a way to keep the time positive and enjoyable. The end of the check-in is a great opportunity to collaborate and make a plan for how the remainder of the evening will be spent. When children enter in to the evening knowing what to expect, it can make transitioning away from screen media smoother.
Another opportunity for interaction and still completing important tasks is to incorporate your children into helping as developmentally appropriate. Kids can help prep and cook, clean, pick up and many other things. Parents sometimes avoid enrolling their children in helping activities because they take longer (especially with younger kids), however, as children practice, they grow in skill and become more independent. They actually help the process go faster.
Playing is another way to engage children. One game of Candyland, Uno or Go Fish doesn’t take very long, but provides an engaging time of fun and learning for kids. Mad Libs, coloring together, building with Legos or other toys, reading a short story, building something simple in the garage and singing songs are ways to engage your child in a quick activity, and can help facilitate their interest in things that don’t include media. If time is an issue, set a limit before beginning, so that everyone is clear on the expectation.
Most parents agree limiting screen time is beneficial. It can be helpful to consider the needs for adequate sleep, healthy behaviors and physical activity when determining how screen time is limited. Remember to consider the value of your time for your children and all of the opportunities for learning when you find creative ways to spend time together. You may just notice an unexpected benefit for yourself.
Jenn Lockwood is program director at Brigid Collins Family Support Center in Bellingham.