By Dr. Helen Andrews, Clinical Psychologist
The use of handheld technology must be one of the biggest changes over the last few years for society, researchers and parents to think about and fully understand the consequences of. We have been thinking about the pros and cons of young children watching television for some time – and we don’t yet agree on the risks and benefits associated with that! What are we supposed to think generally about the amount of screen time young children are exposed to?
As with most parenting decisions, there are no absolute dos and don’ts. However, there are certainly lots of things to consider whilst you contemplate your own view on this subject.
The young child’s developing brain is affected by all repeated experiences and opportunities. In the first few years of life, it is particularly important that the child feels confident enough to begin to explore the social world we live in. They need to have plentiful opportunities for social interactions, with peers and adults (particularly their parents), to experience the full range of emotions and begin to learn how to manage them, and to develop their communication skills, both verbal and non-verbal. All of these experiences are most naturally experienced and learnt in the ‘real’ world of interpersonal relationships. All children’s development will be delayed if they do not have these opportunities.
TV, smart phones and tablets cannot fully replace human interaction. I don’t hear anyone arguing otherwise (yet!) So, can electronic devices actually add to a child’s experiences and development?
Whether we feel anxious about it or not, technology will be a massive part of your child’s life. When you think how much has changed since we were children, it isn’t possible to imagine what their adult lives will hold. They do need to be technology literate. It is up to us to ensure that the early experiences they have are as positive as possible. For example, we can ensure that the apps they watch or play on, or the TV programmes we put on, are actually selected for what they can introduce the child to. There are a lot of good quality, educational TV programmes / apps out there – there is also a lot of dross! Let’s put the effort into finding the good ones. Ones that model good social relationships, teach colours/shapes/letter sounds in a fun way, show the child the world outside with interest and so on.
When children are staring at a screen, they aren’t interacting – so are there apps that you can look at together? Or programmes you can watch together and talk about afterwards? In that way, we are keeping social relationships at the fore.
TV has previously been described as a cheap babysitter, and the same could be said of smart phones. Personally, I’m not knocking this. Surely it’s about the amount of time we are taking this easier option? There are times when you need to get something done quickly, whether it is preparing dinner, or taking another child on the emergency toilet run! Engaging a child with technology seems justified to me. There are also times when, as a parent, we just need a bit of time free from distractions and demands, for ourselves. What is needed is balance. Technology shouldn’t be instead of the other stuff – but as well as. And when our children are busy putting us to shame with their technological prowess at the age of 2, we need to make sure that we are still tuned into their needs. They need to know we are still available to them, and we need to be alert to signs of distress, boredom or fatigue.
Having said all that – there are still unknowns about the impact of so much screen time on brain development. We need to stay up to date with the latest scientifically-informed advice. For instance, backlit screens emit a blue light that is stimulating to the brain. It will therefore interfere with sleep. So I do recommend an hour of screen-free time before nap or bedtime. Our knowledge base will continue to grow and we need to stay flexible in our views.
If I wanted to summarise my views currently:
- Social interaction, particularly with you, is the best way of stimulating your child and aiding their development.
- There is definitely a place for screen time, with well-chosen apps/programmes, for limited periods of time ideally with your involvement.
- Don’t forget traditional toys have a lot to offer as well.
- Screen time interferes with sleep, so allow at least an hour without electronic stimulation in the run up to naps and bedtimes.
- You are allowed a few minutes to yourself now and again and using technology to support this just makes you a modern mum!
Dr Helen Andrews is on the Toddle About Panel of Experts. She is a Clinical Psychologist with over 15 years experience working with children and young people. Through her business, Family Matters in Warwickshire, she helps parents when they can see that their child is struggling with their emotions, behaviour or development.
Contact Helen on 01564 795337 or find out more at www.familymattersinwarwickshire.co.uk