How to protect your child from screens and prepare them for life in the 21st century

As a parent, balancing competing concerns is a constant challenge. And in a lot of ways, the rise of smartphones, tablets, and 24/7 technology has only made that challenge harder.

On one hand, you want to shield your child from the potential harms of overusing screens. You want your child to run around and jump and play and develop into a fully independent adult, not a screen-scrolling zombie.

But on the other hand, you don’t want your child to be technologically illiterate. Whether we like it or not, knowing your way around a smartphone is an increasingly valuable life skill. You don’t want your child to be behind in school because they’ve never used a touchscreen before.

It’s a tough balance to figure out. But luckily, the science is catching up with screens and recommendations are being put in place to help you strike a good balance through every stage of life.  

The Science

The latest studies show that excessive screen time before age five is linked with language delays, as well as reduced attention, lower school readiness and poorer executive function. When it comes to ensuring your child is prepped for success, the real danger is too much screen time, not too little.

As a result, the overarching recommendation is that less is better. Kids learn language and take in more information when interacting with real people. Stories, crafts, and puzzles are more educational than screens.

The Recommendations

Of course, defining “excessive” is important. Currently, researchers recommend:

  • No screen time for children under two
  • A maximum of one hour of sedentary screen time for children 34 (and less is better)
  • A maximum of two hours of sedentary recreation screen time for kids 5 and over (again, less is better)

One thing you might immediately notice – that’s not a lot of time. We all know how easy it is to get lost scrolling on a smartphone for an hour.

So, the key becomes ensuring that the hour or two of screen time is well spent. Learning, experimenting, trying the various features, and playing the types of educational games that might come up in school.

The Reality   

The reality is that kids of all ages are getting too much screen time. Let’s face it, the world is getting too much screen time.

According to a national study, just 24% of Canadian preschoolers (aged 3-4 years) get less than an hour of screen time. According to an Edmonton-based study, only 15% of toddlers (aged 1-2 years) meet screen time guidelines.

In a lot of ways, these numbers aren’t surprising. Screens are good at keeping kids occupied. Sometimes parents just need a moment, and a tablet or television is an easy way to get it.

The latest stats and studies aren’t about assigning blame. They’re about recognizing the difficult challenge parents are currently facing. Technology has quickly invaded our lives and we’re only now beginning to understand the consequences. Reaping the benefits, while minimizing the harms, is no small feat.

The Balancing Act

Finding the right balance is hard, but it starts with recognizing that currently, we’ve erred on the side of too much screen time. From a developmental perspective, finding ways to minimize screen use is important. Interacting with people, instead of screens, is always a swap worth making.

Trading indoor time for outdoor time is another step in the right direction. A half-hour walk always beats a half-hour television show.

Another area of focus should be sleep. Bedrooms, and bedtime routines, should be screen-free. Screens aren’t a good way to start or end the day.

And finally, acknowledge that it’s hard. No short list of tips is going to help you strike the perfect balance. Balancing is part of everyday life. It’s an ongoing process. Less screen time is something we all must work toward, not a simple item to be crossed off our to-do lists.

But, if you happen to stumble upon some great tips that work for you, be sure to share them with us on Twitter @ParticipACTION.

And if you’re looking for more information on the guidelines for screen time, sleep and physical activity, go here.