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The Debate: Is a total ban on screens for small children the answer?

New research shows that toddlers who are exposed to screens communicate less with caregivers. But is delaying access to technology feasible?

Alex Cooney: There’s a reason many Silicon Valley CEOs keep their children away from devices for as long as possible

If you’re a parent reading this with only toddlers at home, then lucky you. You have the opportunity to define your family’s relationship with screens from the outset. I say this as a parent currently on the frontline with a screen-obsessed tween and teenager in the house.

New research has made clear that there is a negative association between longer periods of screen time in the early years of a child’s life and their development of vocabulary and language. The more time babies and toddlers spend on screens, the fewer opportunities there are for face-to-face interaction between parent and child, impeding language development.

Given how ubiquitous screens are in our lives, it’s impractical for parents to withhold screen time from their children entirely, but we do need to be more mindful of not resorting to screens as a digital babysitter. The research does not say no screen time at all is allowed, but it does encourage more focus on how and when screen time is used. Putting good habits in place will serve young children as they progress through primary school.

One strategy is spending time together on screens so that conversation can be part of the screen time experience. Watching content together also provides an opportunity to have important conversations about what is real or not real, whether the behaviour represented on screen resonates positively or negatively.

Children are not born with the innate ability to self-regulate; this is something that develops over time as they learn. Having a really clear strategy on limiting screen time in infancy can help them to develop healthy digital boundaries as they grow and mature.

Most screen time guidelines these days focus a lot less on how much time children are spending online and much more on what they’re actually doing online – quality over quantity. Passive, sedentary use is to be avoided and the focus placed instead on content and activities online that have an educational, social or creative benefit.

Leading experts recommend limiting time for those children under-18 months to video calls. Toddlers over that age can engage in high-quality content (educational games/cartoons), but the emphasis should be placed on doing things together as much as possible. How much screen time children have day-to-day is all within your control when your children are small but gets considerably more difficult as children age and want more and more of it.

It is compounded by the fact that the apps children use are often designed to keep the user engaged for as long as possible. Our data and attention translate into the billions of euros of profit that big tech companies are making off the back of their users. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding it fascinating how many Silicon Valley CEOs favour keeping their children away from devices for as long as possible.

It is an uphill battle, so making a conscious effort now is not overly protective parenting, but prudent preparation for the challenges ahead

We also need to bear in mind that children are constantly watching adults in their lives absorbed in their own screens and this sends a clear message to children that screen time is highly desirable.

If your children are still young, then make the most of this opportunity to really set the tone and the boundaries. Talk to other parents with children of a similar age as it is all so much easier if you have a community of support around you. Alongside setting healthy boundaries, we need to focus on developing children’s digital skills so that when they do get that more independent use and access, they are ready for it.

By the time your children hit their teenage years, as a society we might have evolved more fundamental safeguards against the risks that the online world poses. But it is an uphill battle, so making a conscious effort now is not overly protective parenting, but prudent preparation for the challenges ahead.

Alex Cooney is a cofounder and the CEO of the online safety charity CyberSafeKids

Jen Hogan: Dire warnings about the risks of screens don’t ease the guilt of exhausted and overwrought parents

There are very few parents, I imagine, who think: “I really wish my children would spend more time on screens than they already do.” If anything, most of us agonise about the amount of time our children spend looking at one screen or another as we reflect, through rose-tinted glasses, on our own screen-free childhoods. Neglecting, of course to remember, the parts where hours on end were spent watching television with the promise – or threat – of square eyes as those hours mounted up.

A recent report suggesting that “technoference” is real, and revealing the negative impact of screen time on the parent-child dynamic and language development, won’t have done anything to help ease the guilt of exhausted and overwrought parents. Screens, though we may love and loathe them in equal measure, can offer that little bit of respite and even welcome distraction when there is work to be done, tantrums to be avoided, a break desperately needed, and – for a few years there – pandemics to be navigated.

Oh yes, those pandemics and their draconian restrictions which disproportionately impacted school-age children, forcing them from playgrounds, school, activities, friends, extended family and everything which a child might hold dear, and into their homes and on to their screens, for hours on end, in total conflict with everything parents had tried to do in the years previous. Limiting screens to a brief amount of time in the evenings and/or weekends became a distant memory as school, entertainment and keeping in contact with loved ones moved online. Very little concern was expressed by experts then about the impact this might have on children, as their world shrunk and opportunities for conversation lessened.

No one thinks leaving children to watch screens for hours on end, without real life interactions, is okay

Many parents are still trying to claw back the amount of time that children spend online. Habits formed are difficult to break, as us adults know only too well. And for children who spent far more of their day on screens than we would ever have wanted them to, turning things around is no mean feat. Removing screens altogether is an unrealistic goal. Reasonable usage rather than blanket bans is more appropriate for the times we live in now.

Screens, in their newest forms, are here to stay. Our children are digital natives. This is their norm. Even within the education system, devices have become commonplace – though plenty of us might prefer they weren’t. Ipads have replaced physical books in many classrooms. Here they’re not problematic, we’re told, yet if children are allowed to use these same devices for their own leisure or downtime, that’s always viewed as a negative thing.

Parents are not lazy and disinterested, as can be the way they are sometimes judged, but flustered, run-ragged parents trying to do the best they can, in a you-can-have-it-all world.

A new study revealed that almost half of parents (49 per cent) don’t take time off work while minding their children. With affordability, availability and suitability all big issues in the childcare conundrum, parents often have no choice but to use screens as a babysitter, whether they want to or not.

And as we vilify, it’s worth remembering that not all content on the internet is equal. Along with the things we fear and try to protect our children from, there are interactive age-appropriate games and fun activities. Want to learn how to play the guitar or piano from home? You can find that there online. Cousins living in a different county or country? Well, the miles don’t matter quite so much when you can play together online and chat.

No one thinks leaving children to watch screens for hours on end, without real life interactions, is okay. But is letting your child watch some cartoons for a little while as you try to meet a deadline, or get a little bit of head space really that bad? When we know better, we should do better – but that needs to operate within the parameters of people’s reality.

Jen Hogan is an Irish Times parenting columnist

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