I find myself addressing screen time and device use more often with my clients’ parents. Even though I specialize in early intervention, many parents brag to me about how games and apps teach and help their child, and they’re proud of their child’s technological adeptness. (“They know more than me!”)
I particularly remember a family telling me their son spent approximately three hours on his iPad, approximately two hours watching TV or movies, and maybe one hour of using his parents’ phone—each day!
This child could say “circle” and “triangle”—learned from an app—according to his parent. He used no other words during my evaluation, but when not using his iPad, he became active and easily agitated. Eventually, he started climbing furniture to get to where the television was and hit the TV with both hands. When I asked the parent what their son might be communicating to them, the father said, “Oh I know, he’s probably asking me to turn on the TV.”
During the assessment, the father kept persuading his son to do something else, but the crying and screaming became louder and louder until the parent broke down and asked if I’d put the TV on. The father said television was the only way to calm his child once he got overly upset. Then he added that the only way to feed his child involved putting on his favorite show, and the only way he fell asleep at night was with the TV on.
When I share this story with my peers, I get some judgmental comments toward these particular parents, and they often wonder how screen time could get so out of control. I have another take. Who teaches parents about the addictive patterns of screens, phones and tablets? Do pediatricians cover screen time during well visits? I know parents often get handouts of some sort with recommendations on limiting screen time, but is it enough?
Armed with the latest research on the effects of too much screen time, I use several strategies to convince parents how important face-to-face interaction is for their child’s development and health. (Note: As always, children who use low- and high-tech augmentative and alternative communication devices (AAC) should continue to use them at all times—and in an interactive way.)
- Share screen time guidelines. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time prior to 18 months, and limiting screen use to an hour per day for children up through age 5. Recent research found that every additional half hour of screen time over recommended times increased the child’s risk for expressive language delays by 49 percent.
- Teach passive versus active screen time. Passive screen time takes place when a child watches a show alone and isn’t encouraged to respond to the characters in any way. Active screen time includes using a device to make a video call or watching a show—or playing games—with a parent or caregiver who communicates with the child. Active screen time generates some two-way communication, encourages language use, and involves family members and friends.
- Explain how screens become addictive and can reinforce negative behavior. I help parents learn to recognize negative behavior as a form of demanding more and more use of these devices. Handing a screaming or upset child a device as a means of comfort only reinforces this negative behavior and can teach the child to always request via tantrum. I encourage parents to give their child a device or watch a show only when the child is calm—not when they are upset or crying.
- Offer options in lieu of screen time as a distraction. Many parents share that they try to avoid their child melting down in public by handing them a device. The last thing anyone wants is a screaming child in the grocery store. However, I ask them to try books, toys they don’t see often, or even a snack. Keep phone use as a last resort.
- Collaborate on screen time alternatives. For example, a parent says, “I always offer the phone while I feed my child, because otherwise he won’t eat.” The parent and I discuss possible options that might also be effective with practice—reading out loud to the child, listening to music, holding a small toy or plastic spoon.
Parents report back to me about their successful incorporation of time with their child not involving screens. They go outside to play, take trips to the library, organize play dates, take some type of a class—music, gymnastics, art—read aloud, free play with toys, and many other alternatives.
If parents also limit their own screen time and develop other interests, this puts into effect a purposeful, monitored and informed use of screen time for the entire family.