The 180

In defence of screen time

Pediatricians have long warned parents to limit children's exposure to screens. But this year, the American Pediatric Association is expected to depart from that conventional wisdom. That is welcome news for Alexandra Samuel, who says it's time parents reject technology shame.
Toddler Kade Essay checks out the iPad holder on Fisher-Price's Apptivity seat. Should parents worry about how much screen time their children get? (CBC)

It kills imagination, ruins social skills, shortens attention span, delays sleep, and plays some role in making you fat. 

Those are the typical arguments made against screen time for children. 

And it's not just the deep dark corners of the internet or unscientific websites giving parents that advice. Expert opinion has stood firm on the dangers of screen time for more than a decade, until very recently. 

Late last year, the American Association of Pediatrics announced it would revisit its guidelines on screen time - with an expectation to publish new guidelines this fall

And when that happens - Alexandra Samuel will be celebrating with her children and the many devices they are exposed to on a regular basis. 

The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length. 

Why is it good news that a major pediatrics association is reconsidering its thinking around screen time?

I think a lot of parents have really struggled the sense that if you hand your kid an iPhone or if you leave the TV on in their presence you are permanently damaging them because for all that the powers of be have been telling us, that recommendation has been out of step, more and more, with how families lead their lives and we need advice that is actually relevant to how we live now. 

How worried should parents be about the time their children spend with their devices? 

I think that's a philosophical question about how much do you want your parenting experience to be defined by worrying. To me, it has to be weighed against other things that they could be spending their time instead. In an ideal world, neuroscience and your grandmother will tell you that the best thing for your child is to keep them off screens in their early years, have eye contact and meaningful interaction and holding them to your breast when they need comforting. For the four parents for whom that is economically and temporally feasible, awesome! Good for you! But for the rest of us who have to do the laundry, and sometimes my children annoy me and I need a break, and screens can sometimes give you the break to replenish and be the parent you want to be. This issue is hugely class bound - so for the same reason we have seen that the outcomes for kids who have at-home parents versus preschool and daycare are comparable for better educated and more affluent families, but very different for poorer kids who end up doing better when they're in daycare environments. You have to recognize that screen time is always as opposed to something, and depending on your family's circumstances, maybe watching Sesame Street is the most stimulating option your child has in the afternoon. 

With devices like tablets and smartphones developing as fast as they do, how can we expect research on the effect of those devices to be up to date? 

We can't. There's no way for research to keep up with the technology we're developing, but what parents need to recognize is that keeping parents off of devices is an experiment too. We also won't know for 25 years what the effect is on children who have been delayed from the technologies that are going to define the world that they live in. 

When it comes to child development, why not err on the side of caution? 

Because the world is changing too. Most of us want our children to work and live and socialize in the 21st century, and speaking as a parent, for the same reason I don't teach kids that abstinence will define their sexuality, I don't want them to define their relationship to technology by their capacity to unplug. So unless we're able to shift our thinking around novelty, we're going to continue to allow alarm to crowd out opportunity. 

But is it alarm? We keep hearing about how children are bigger than they should be, and less active and less healthy. Maybe in this particular case, the alarmists are right! 

Clearly there are negative impacts.  But what I would like to see is parents who do worry about physical activity and emotional engagement, meaningfully diving in to technology so that it can become constructive. You can let the internet isolate your child or you can let it connect your child to other people who share her interests. The alarm needs to bring our attention to the hard work we need to do as parents in ensuring that this technology affects our children in the ways we want and provides them with the opportunities we want. 

Click the blue button above to hear the full interview. 


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