Agonising over screen time? Follow the three C’s
Just weeks ago, the sight of our toddlers entranced by screens first thing in the morning would have caused panic. Now? It’s a typical Tuesday. In fact, screens are on as we write this article. How else could we do it?
As coronavirus lockdowns spread across the country, many parents are turning to television, tablets and video games more than they typically would. In fact, TV, streaming platforms and app downloads have all seen notable increases in their use since the pandemic started.
Although part of this time in front of screens is related to remote teaching in virtual classrooms, children’s television viewing has skyrocketed since the pandemic began. Channels like The Cartoon Network, the Disney Channel, Boomerang and Nickelodeon have reported viewing increases by as much as nearly 60 per cent in a single week.
As parents and scientists who study and treat disease in kids (one of us is an epidemiologist and the other a pediatrician) we understand how jarring it is to see our children suddenly glued to “Frozen 2” at 8am.
And after years of following guidelines to limit their media exposure, it’s hard not to wonder whether all of this screen time is OK. Will going from strictly limiting our kids’ media exposure to a cartoon free-for-all harm them? Isn’t screen time still bad?
Not necessarily, said Dr Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician and expert on children and media at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. She said parents need to stop thinking about screen time in a negative way.
“Even the phrase ‘screen time’ itself is problematic,” she said, meaning some people think all screens are bad.
“It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced.”
On March 17, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a statement in response to the new coronavirus that reflected a different approach to screentime. The statement acknowledged that “kids’ screen media use will likely increase” during the coronavirus pandemic, but did not offer specific time limits.
Instead, the statement stressed that screen time limits “are still important” and urged parents to “preserve offline experiences”.
This approach to time limits was deliberate.
“We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard,” Dr Radesky, who helped craft the statement, said.
“There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don’t be on it all day.”
It’s understandable that parents might want some concrete guidance on how to ensure that their child’s screen exposure is healthy and balanced. But instead of focusing on how much time your child spends in front of a screen, Dr Radesky suggested, it might be better to approach their media use in terms of who they are, what they’re watching and how you’re interacting with them.
This is what Dr Radesky and others called the “Three C’s” framework: Child, content and context.
“You know your child better than anyone else and are therefore the best person to decide what and how much media use is the right amount,” she said.
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