Child Caring

Kids & screen time: How much is too much?

"How do I handle the influence of screens in my kids' lives?"

I used to hear questions like that all the time. These days, not so much. Why not? That's the question I wanted answered last week when early childhood educator and Wheelock professor Diane Levin spoke at Wheelock College about her new book, "Beyond Remote Control Childhood." It's been 15 years since Levin wrote "Remote Control Childhood," which details how and why too much screen time undermines a child's development. What has changed since then to make parents seemingly less able to resist the influence of screens? Levin has answers. Read more for excerpts from our conversation last week.

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Barbara: Is it my imagination that parents don't seem all that worried about screen time?

Diane: No. Screens are everywhere and parents struggle to figure out what to do. There are so many marketing messages that tell parents screens will make their babies smart, that they often do accept that. Also, we now have the first generation of parents who themselves may have had remote-control childhoods. They are comfortable having their kids engaged in the world this way. At the same time, it's not guilt-free. Even in comparison to their own childhoods, these parents recognize there are more screens now and more ways in which screens can take over life.

Barbara: ...And they are so dependent on screens themselves.

Diane: Yep. The problem feels so big! Mostly, they don't know what to do...

Barbara: What does remote-control childhood mean?

Diane: I think of "remote-control" as code for being involved in following someone else's program. It's the failure to develop the skills to engage in active learning, to self- regulate, to determine your own course of growth.

Barbara: And "Beyond Remote-Control...?"

Diane: Helping your kids have the kind of experiences they need, developmentally. Getting them back into their own programs, that they create, beyond the remote-control.

Barbara: Explain what that means. Developmentally.

Diane: Young children need hands-on experience in the real world with objects they can manipulate and they need hands-on experience in relationships. This is how they learn, especially how they learn to negotiate and cooperate and collaborate and problem-solve. It's how they make sense of the world they live in in a way they can understand so they can build, gradually, over time on what's relevant to them in their individual lives. It's how they add nuance and dimension and meaning and understanding.

Barbara: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screens before age 2.

Diane: Yes, and after 2, no more than an hour a day.

Barbara: Because why? The screens interfere with that normal development? Interrupt it? Short-circuit it?

Diane: Yes. Depending on how much time in front of the screen, the screen can hijack development.

Barbara: I wish more parents knew that.

Diane: I do, too. There is so much hype about the positive role screens can play. The truth is, the less time young kids spend on screens, the better; the older they are when they start with screens, the better, because they have more skills for active engagement to bring to the screen use.

: Do young children learn anything from a screen? Some parents say they do.

Diane: They look smart, but they arenít developing foundations to become smart in the real world. [Click here to learn about a successful bid to stop educational claims of so-called "smart" toys.]

Barbara: Can you be more specific?

Diane: OK. Your baby cries. You push a button and there are lights, images, noises. Your baby startles and stops crying. The next time she's unhappy, you do the same thing. It works! Pretty soon, she knows to push the button to make the noises. The problem is, she's not learning to self regulate. She's not learning to suck her thumb or finger the blankie to help herself feel better. And what happens when the toy isn't handy? Uh oh! Meltdown. Attachment is also threatened. The parent isnít doing the calming, the toy is. That's not healthy for learning how to build relationships.

Barbara: Can a screen ever be a good thing for a young child?

Diane: When the screen builds on the childís engagement. When the route the child takes is his own and the activity grows from him, not from the screen. Your preschooler loves pandas. You go on-line and download pictures, learn about their habitat. I like Skype. It allows kids to be who they are, to share what they know and to build relationships, all through the screen.

Here are Diane Levin's recommendations for parents to manage screens in children's lives, although I have to add that she's quick to say, "There are no formulas!"

No screens before age 2.

After age 2: No more than 1 hour a day.

When you introduce a screen, know why you are using it. For instance: Whatís she likely to learn? Howís it likely to influence what she will do afterwards? How can I connect with her so it will enhance her world rather than just lure her into a program?

Make choices together about the programs he's using. Stay connected.

Build routines and rituals around the screen. When does he get to play? When a child does become involved in a screen, be creative about transition times away from screens. This is often a tricky time, says Levin, because when they move away from the screen, "real life can seem boring. Kids act out." One ritual, for instance, would be for him to know that after the turn-off, you will do something together -- have a snack, read a book, get out paper and markers -- so he looks forward to doing something with you. Be connected to the content so you can connect with it and bring it back to the real world. Write a story. Make picture.

For more ideas, see the TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment), especially their guidelines; Common Sense Media; and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.