Finding Technological Equilibrium

watching dora on ipad

It is clear from my conversations with other parents and my reading of blogs that many parents are grappling with the impact of technology and screen-time on their children. The trend seems to be an increasing desire to minimize the amount of time children spend watching television and playing video games. The gut instinct of many parents which is also backed up by cognitive research is that too much screen-time particularly for the youngest kids can be detrimental to healthy development.

When my eldest was one she watched her first episode of Sesame Street. She was mesmerized but afterwards, for lack of a better word, she was discombobulated. It overwhelmed her. Fortunately, our situation at the time didn’t require us to rely on television or videos to entertain or distract her.

When I was pregnant with our second child, we had just moved into our first home and made a conscious decision not to sign up for cable television or another subscription service. We also moved the flat-screen into the master bedroom rather than keep it in a common area of the house. Our daughter started preschool at a Montessori school which limited technology in the primary classrooms and discouraged character-based clothing/paraphernalia. But for the first time, I started regularly using educational PBS shows on our computer to entertain my daughter when I was having bouts of morning sickness. Usually, she would only watch thirty minutes here and there but often after she finished watching I noticed she tended to become more hyperactive.

My husband and I did some reading about childhood brain development and how screen-time affects neurological development in children and the research argued that minimizing screen-time was the healthier choice. (For a good introduction see Brain Rules )

After my son was born and my daughter’s circle of friends expanded, we were occasionally gifted toys and books related to movies or television shows. Upon receiving a Dora the Explorer book and learning there were Dora videos my daughter asked to watch one. But after watching one, she quickly demanded another and another and another. And while I appreciated the fact that the videos were teaching her Spanish and problem-solving, I felt increasingly that she was becoming addicted to the videos. My concern was further reinforced by my son’s reaction to the videos. As a second child, my son has done many things (such as staying up to watch 4th of July fireworks, going trick-or-treating in the neighborhood or eating desserts) much earlier in his life than his sister and television viewing has been another. When he watched a Dora video with his sister for the first time he was enthralled and adamant about watching as many as he could. So for both of the kids, we decided to only visit with Dora once a month at most.

reading brain rules

When Frozen came out and all my daughter’s friends were obsessed with the film, my daughter asked whether she could watch the movie. We told her that parents have different timelines as to when their kids are ready to watch movies and that we didn’t think it was time yet for her to watch Frozen. We acknowledged that she may have felt left out because she hadn’t seen the movie but she didn’t put up a fuss and didn’t ask about it again. We had already limited her exposure to movies so much that it was par for the course.

With my third pregnancy, I would again turn to videos when I was exhausted. Clearly, there is a pattern as to when I allow my kids to watch tv. So I do understand how it can be really helpful when a parent is tired, sick or busy. And I suspect that in the future I will continue to use it as a backstop.

At this point my daughter is almost six, my son just turned three and we have a six month old and we continue to limit their tech/screen-time. When we have allowed my daughter and son to watch a movie such as Sound of Music or Cars, they have both found it scary, boring or confusing which for them equates to overwhelming and over-stimulating. They have done a little better with more gentle fare such as My Neighbor Totoro but we have decided that for the time being that movies are not helpful or necessary.

Our kids have all-day access to the CD player and can choose to listen to music or audiobooks. They don’t have access to our smartphones, though we did succumb to Thomas the Train Engine during a three hour Thanksgiving restaurant dinner in San Francisco. The iPad is only occasionally used to watch Planet Earth episodes, Skype with the grandparents or research projects. My eldest is learning how to use the computer to download pictures from her digital camera and print them out as well as how to type in Word and my husband is getting ready to teach her coding when the time is right. We tried introducing the Wii over the winter holiday but the kids found bowling and tennis frustrating and boring. They said that they would much rather play so back into the attic went the console. At my daughter’s current school they do use videos and a smartboard in the classroom so she has technological exposure in her daily life which further reduces the need for it at home.

Additionally, my husband and I have renewed our efforts to limit as best we can our own screen-time. We no longer watch serialized television shows but rather download or stream an occasional movie and do our best to not constantly check our phones or mindlessly surf the web which at times is easier said than done. But doing so has made us more productive and more present for each other and the kids.

We aren’t anti-technology rather we are pro-technology at the right developmental juncture. And I readily admit that it is a blessing and luxury to have the time, energy and financial means to be able to provide alternatives to television and screen-time for my children. There is no doubt that technology can enrich and improve our lives but we should control it and use it thoughtfully and with awareness as we would any other parenting tool. Perhaps this means going on a technological fast  for several weeks or slowly (re)introducing technology. Be proactive about finding your family’s technological equilibrium.

Scroll down for ideas and activities which are tech/screen-free.

Some further thoughts

  • My children with be technologically backwards compared to their peers if I limit their access to technology
    • The learning curve once children are introduced to technology at an appropriate age is steep, they will “catch-up”
    • Some of the most tech savvy parents purposely send their kids to “anti-tech” schools
  • Video games or game apps are good for hand-eye-coordination
    • This may be true but there are plenty of other activities which develop hand-eye coordination such as sports and arts which develop and cultivate creativity of mind and mastery of body which are not as generally solitary and sedentary as video game playing
  • TV is educational; children learn their ABCs, math, spelling, science, social skills, etc. from videos
    • This is also true but television is should only be one among many ways in which our children learn academics or other important life skills
  • My kids won’t be able to relate as well with their friends without an understanding of popular culture
    • As of yet, my children haven’t had any trouble making friends even though they are unfamiliar with most characters and movies
    • But if this were ever to become an issue, we would address it and dialogue around it, adapt and show flexibility which is the best that we as parents can do whether the issue is technology or anything else which affects our children
  • Listen to your child both her words and her actions when she is faced with technology.
    • A dear mama friend said her daughter who when presented with the opportunity declined watching a movie with friends during a playdate. When her mother asked her why she had chosen to opt-out of the movie, her daughter said, “Mama - I like my own pictures in my head. I don’t want anyone else to put their pictures there.”
  • When researching scientific studies, whether they be pro- or anti-technology make sure to understand the difference between correlation and causation as well as the target group studied
    • Be cognizant who is authoring or funding the study
    • Many studies have found correlation rather than causation
    • Many technology studies are particular to certain age groups, for example adults or teenagers are going to have much different technological needs and outcomes to exposure than preschoolers
  • What others are saying:

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