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Therapy Resources

Screen time

“Hey, can I play with your phone?” your son asks while you are trying to get settled at home after a busy day.

“Not right now,” you reply, trying to be a patient parent and provide your child time to settle down from the day. 

“AAAGGHHH! THAT’S NOT FAIR, NO ONE EVER LETS ME DO ANYTHING!!!” he screams, as he throws himself on the floor. 

“OK, but just for 30 minutes” you relent, trying to keep the peace in the home as you think to yourself, “Honestly, it will give me time to start dinner.” 

Sound familiar?  This scenario and many others like it, occur in homes every day regarding screen time. “Just 30 minutes” turns into 2 hours as a parent attempts to gain control of his or her current day and prepare for the next. Screen time can be a saving grace as well as the cause of tension in the home. We are blessed to live in a technologically advanced world. However, that technology can also be a curse.  Trying to find the balance between embracing this age of technology yet not letting it consume our time is one of the biggest struggles for families. 

Screen time is defined as any time spent in front of any kind of screen (i.e. phone, iPad, computer, leap frog games, TV, etc…). Despite the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations on allowable screen time, children under the age of 8 are spending more and more time in front of some sort of technology. Most all of us have read, heard on the news, or seen on the internet that screen time negatively effects behavioral, emotional, physical, and mental development. It’s our job as child care providers and parents to consider these effects and how we want to approach them with the children in our care. 

Children vary in their developmental processes and stages. Some children have no difficulty putting down a game to eat or play outside, but some have tendencies to more addictive and obsessive behaviors in regard to screens. They have difficulty becoming “locked in,” and  their preoccupation with screens continues even when the power button is turned off. It is important that we, as child care professionals, parents, and adults in the lives of children manage screen time according to how the child responds. Those with an increased inclination to becoming “locked in” need disciplined managed screen time. Some questions to ask yourself are:

Does my child become angry, aggressive, withdrawn, locked into another world, requiring a long time to come back into reality following screen time?

  • If “yes,” screen time has a negative effect on the emotional development of your child and his or her ability to self-regulate. Therefore, eliminating screens from your home may be needed.

Does your child perseverate on topics related to what he or she watches on screens? Does he or she talk incessantly or script from movies during stressful, uncertain times during the day? 

  • If “yes,” it’s important to make sure your child is not watching/playing the same movie, TV show, or game over and over again. Take more control of your child’s movie options by keeping all DVDs out of the child’s sight, and only offering a few at a time for the child to choose from.  Try to keep weekly options down to 3-4 choices so the child will not be overwhelmed.  Also, if you find that your child fixates on or is obsessed with one particular video, only offer that as an option every other week.  

Is a screen the only tool in which your child learns? Is it the only time your child will sit still?

  • It’s important to support a child where he or she learns best and use the screen as a great resource for teaching and spending quality time WITH your child. However, if we use the screen only as a way to teach and not challenge in other areas we are doing a disservice to the child and not helping him become more integrated into the world. Using screens as the only communicative device or learning tool actually pulls him or her away from socialization. Balancing challenge and support is key!  This can at times be directly related, but not limited to, a child with a diagnosis (Autism, ADD, non-verbal, etc…).  If it is diagnosis related, please work closely with your child’s therapists, teachers, and doctor to determine the child’s best style of learning.  

Ask yourself: “Why am I allowing my child to engage with screens?”

  • If it’s to get some down time, make sure you have the self-discipline needed to limit the amount of time your child spends in front of a screen. Set a timer as a reminder.
  • If it’s because you feel it is helping your child build skills, then interact with your child while he or she engages with the screen. It is important to note that any learning which occurs from computers, TV, etc. builds only static brain development. The only exception is a  device that encourages total body participation. Using a screen as an educational tool limits dynamic, whole brain development which comes only with experience-based learning incorporating more than one sensory system at a time. 
  • If it’s because you do not want to fight the melt down it will cost when you say “No,” then you are letting your child guide you in your parenting/care giving. Take some time to discuss this with the primary adults in his or her life and take the reins back. The first couple of weeks that follow as you set limits on screens will be difficult, but you will be empowered once you work through it with your child.  

As child care professionals, parents, and adults involved in child development, it is important to constantly ask yourself: “Am I allowing a screen to replace a person in teaching and playing with this child?” All too often, as therapists, teachers, and parents, we rely on a device to teach language, hand-eye coordination, and concepts in place of ourselves. In doing that, we are promoting static brain development over an engaged brain. 

So, if all information from well-respected organizations and research supports the negative effect screens have on children, why not ban all screens from the home? Just think about how peaceful your life would become -- no more arguments, no more meltdowns, no more incessant talking and scripting about favorite characters, and no more guilt from our own obsession with screens. Well, before you start unplugging every device and taking games off of your computers, you must consider where we are in today’s world and the implications of becoming “screen free.”  Technology and electronics are a part of our culture whether we like it or not. The world of devices offers much for children when used in moderation.  Simply monitor screen time in your home, take time to consider your child’s individual response to screen time, and make adjustments accordingly. Your child’s development depends upon the opportunities he or she has to engage optimally in the world around them. 

Suggested Screen Time Guidelines:

  • Children under age 2 should have no screen time.
  • Limit screen time to 1-2 hours a day for children over age 2. 
  • Children with an Autism spectrum diagnosis or ADD/ADHD should be limited to 30 minutes a day of screen time

Lynne Hollaway is an Occupational Therapist, the only certified RDI (Relationship Development Intervention) Consultant in the state of Arkansas, and is now the director of the Little Rock Pediatrics Plus Developmental Preschool.