It's the easiest go-to solution in times of tears, tantrums and boredom but handing a child a device can come at the expense of imaginative play. Dearbhala Cox Giffin offers suggestions on staying away from technology
The debate about the use of screen time rolls on and the question remains about how much children should ideally have. In reality, technology addiction is a fast-growing problem both for children and adults as it's fuelled by the 24/7 accessibility of social media, games and apps that are designed to keep people playing or engaged with a screen.
It's generally accepted that screen time can have negative effects on children's well-being and physical health as even interactive screen time mostly involves sitting around on a couch inside, which may replace sports or outdoor and active play. Using screens too late in the day can also interfere with children's sleeping patterns, which can have long-term effects on their health and development.
When very young children use screens, whether it is a tablet, mobile phone or a television screen, it often comes at the expense of the interactive, imaginative play that they need to develop language and a sense of self. Toddlers may be engaged by screens, especially touchscreen devices such as smartphones and tablets, but these devices just do not provide the kind of stimulation children this age need, so ideally try to avoid using screens with children under two years and focus on play, art, and fun activities that don't involve screens.
Keep their play real and soothe them with music, stories, singing or best of all, cuddles. We all know that keeping children entertained at home without resorting to the iPad babysitter can be tough, but get creative!
Older children may get some benefit from educational screen content, particularly if they are well-designed, age-appropriate programmes with specific educational goals. For some children, they can provide an additional route to early language and literacy and can also foster aspects of cognitive development, including positive racial attitudes and imaginative play. However, remember that children learn best from real life and the positive interactions with other children and adults in their lives. Try to recall what your children enjoyed doing before they ever got an iPad or smartphone. Tap into what they enjoy doing outside of YouTube or social media to keep them entertained.
Screen time boundaries
Most parents have boundaries for when and for how long their children can have screen time. Don't forget that good habits and routines are established more easily in early childhood than with older children, so start early and try to stick to your screen limits. Sometimes there can be challenges in adhering to these family boundaries, but guidelines for everyone will help, especially when the whole family works together.
As a family, be mindful about the use of screen time and parents should ideally role model healthy screen use to their children. Like everything in life, moderation is key - try to ensure that the family routine consists of a range of healthy and sensory activities, encouraging lots of physical, creative and tactile play. Modelling proper use of technology is the number one consideration and giving your child eye contact and face-to-face attention is a priority - put your phone away and show your children that they're most important thing.
Give your children a voice
Holidays can be a good time to refresh the screen-time rules in your home, for both you and your children, as there are lots of benefits to including the whole family when revisiting these boundaries. It's important to give children a voice and involve them in agreeing the guidelines about screen time.
Ultimately, the parent makes the final decision, but the children can be part of the decision-making process which gives them a sense of ownership and responsibility and will help them to self-regulate their use of screens. Encourage your children to choose how they get to use their daily allocation of screen time and let them know in advance of the consequences if they don't follow the rules. This way, consequences don't feel like arbitrary punishments.
Try device-free time
Maintain daily 'screen-free' times, especially for family meals and story-time, and don't allow any screens at the table or in the bedroom. At the weekend and on holidays, suggest no devices before lunch or near bedtime to prevent children from getting up early or staying up late online. Try to turn off screens when not in use and avoid background television.
Time permitting, arrange some family fun days outside the home and take your children somewhere new or even somewhere they usually love going. By distracting them and placing them in a new environment, they won't even think about wanting to use their devices.
Of course, let's not forget that phones, televisions, tablets and computers have benefits as educational or creative tools. It is fine to use a device to keep children occupied now and again, but it's also important to offer paper and pencils. Like everything, it's a matter of finding the right balance between apps and board games, or between watching a film together and staring at screens separately.
Dearbhala Cox Giffin is Director of Childcare at Giraffe Childcare, see giraffe.ie