Beneficial Screen Time?

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An interview with Dr. Dimitri Christakis

When I was a child, screen time meant television, and I watched a ton.  Had personal computers and smart phones already existed, I probably never would have gone outside. By the time my children were born, there was extensive research about the affects of technology and media on children’s developing minds, so my husband and I have been fairly conservative about how much access our children have to screen time. I know I can’t keep them away from media completely because there are valuable aspects of it and, unlike when I was a child, it’s a daily part of our lives. As a parent it’s very easy to get overwhelmed and confused about how to guide our kids around this kind of entertainment, so I took my questions to an expert, Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of Seattle Children’s Research Institute’s Center for Child Health. — Gina Osher, The Twin Coach, TMC Contributor

Are there actually benefits to allowing young children (ages 3-6) access to media and technology? 

Absolutely. Too many people talk about media monolithically: Is it good or bad? Instead, we should be looking at what and how children are consuming media and technology. There are lots of shows that are not beneficial, but many help children learn letters, increase social skills, develop a sensitivity to diversity and so forth. All media is educational, we just need to be aware of what our children are being educated about.

You often talk about creating a “media diet.” Can you give us some examples of how parents would create this diet for their children? 

The AAP’s (American Academy of Pediatrics) stance on children and media is that it is OK for children over the age of 2 to have up to 2 hours a day of screen time. Personally, I think that is excessive and would like to see it reduced to 1 hour per day. Parents should then take the time they feel comfortable with and decide how and when to allocate it. The good news is that there are some excellent shows out there and by using a few techniques and various tech solutions, it can be simple to create a good media diet for our kids:

  • Use your DVR/Streaming/TiVo to eliminate commercials and allow you to hand pick which shows your children are exposed to. Be selective with what and how much you allow your children to watch.
  • Watch shows together so that you are familiar with them. This allows you to discuss what they learned in each show and how it can apply in real life. Recap the shows with your kids using real situations in their lives.
  • Children relate to the characters they watch so use them as role models to instill positive lessons.
It is important that parents not use technology of any sort during family meals or bedtime. These are precious times that parents have with their children. The use of phones, video games and the like displaces opportunities parents have to connect with their children. Additionally, there are lots of experiments that show that we consume more when we eat in front of the television and that television inhibits the ability to fall asleep.

Do you think children would get more out of technology and media if parents waited until later to introduce it? 

This question becomes one of displacement. That is, are parents using media instead of something else? There are interactive apps that allow children to play with virtual LEGOs instead of real LEGOs, but they do not get to experience the tactile feel, the versatility or 3-dimensional quality of the real thing. Early introduction to programs that are interactive and allow the child to develop their curiosity, problem solving and independent thinking skills can be quite beneficial, but there is a fine line that parents must walk.

Do you think that with the increase in educators using different types of media to enhance their lessons that children from lower income families will be at a disadvantage? How do you think the playing field can be leveled? 

At a young age, the disadvantage for lower income families is not from lack of computers, but more to do with the school’s general resources. Computers are not superior to high quality teaching. However, at some point it does become a disadvantage as children need to do Google searches to complete assignments or fall behind on tech literacy and media.

What methods can parents use to ensure their children don’t find their way to websites, social media or games that are inappropriate for them? 

There are numerous filtering software programs parents can use that can be set so that children are unable to access programs parents aren’t comfortable with. However, the difficulty is that the filters can be set either too high or too low which makes them less effective. Additionally, with older children it’s impossible to keep them away from all forms of technology. Rather, it is best to do things like discuss with your children what is appropriate and what is not, keep your computer in a public space so parents can see what their children are doing, talk about the permanency of things that are put online and so on. The bottom line is that parents need to establish trust with their children.

Dr. Dimitri Christakis is director of Seattle Children’s Research Institute’s Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine and a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Dr. Christakis is a leading expert on how media affects child health and development. He has published dozens of media-related studies and co-authored a groundbreaking book, The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for your Kids. His work has been featured on Anderson Cooper 360, the Today Show, ABC, NBC, and CBS news as well as all major national newspapers.

Please share your thoughts/anecdotes/musings about this topic below in the comments section.  We love hearing from you!

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out episodes of our “Ruby’s Studio” children’s video series,  along with our beautiful children’s booksappsmusichandmade dolls, and more.

Posted in: Expert Advice, Family, Modern Parenting

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