The Digital Bub: Should babies be allowed screen time?

The new generation of babies are growing up as digital natives, but is it OK for them to have screen time and if so how much?

If you have a little one under two years, you’ll know that it’s virtually impossible to cocoon them from the digital world they’re growing up in. From TV and DVDs to electronic games, computers, smartphones and tablets, most modern households are full of electronic media, so it’s inevitable that bub will be exposed to it. 

While Australian stats are limited, US research reveals that 38 per cent of children under two have used a smartphone or tablet and six per cent use these devices daily, while 30% of under-twos spend about an hour a day watching TV and DVDs. Thankfully there are realistic ways you can put boundaries around your child’s screen time.

Screen time for under-twos: the new thinking 

Up until last year, the general consensus among experts was that children under two should avoid screen time altogether. “The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) first released a guideline in 1999 discouraging screen use in under-twos, mainly around television use, and Australia has essentially followed those recommendations,” says Jacinta Grima, clinical psychologist at the The Children’s Psychology Clinic in Sydney. “That guideline is now being revised to reflect the reality of digital technology in our lives.”

While the new recommendations won’t be released until later this year, it’s safe to say they will be a departure from earlier simplistic, blanket rules. “In a world where ‘screen time’ is becoming simply ‘time’, our policies must evolve or become obsolete,” the AAP wrote in a 2015 report. The new thinking is that digital media is “just another environment” that, like any environment, can have positive and negative effects, so it’s up to parents to be discerning about its worthiness.

What it means for parents

If you’ve been feeling guilty about the times you’ve fired off emails from your phone while juggling a toddler or putting their favourite DVD on (for the tenth time), you can ease up on yourself. Rather than avoiding screens altogether, which just isn’t realistic, aim to make the majority of your child’s tech experiences enriching ones. “Consider whether media use is creating opportunities – or lost opportunities – for your child’s development,” advises Grima. “For example, there’s a difference between passively watching TV versus a two-year-old chatting to an overseas relative on Skype.” Similarly, using an electronic device to read to your child rates as a more positive experience than letting them play with the device by themselves. 

“The take-home message for parents is to be really mindful about ‘what’ and ‘when’, and to focus on the fact that children learn best from actual interaction with people and their world, not via passive screen or digital media use,” notes Grima. 

As for the dreaded toddler tantrum? While it may be tempting to distract them with a funny video on your phone, that’s not the best approach in the long run. “Placating a tantrum with a screen creates a real opportunity loss when it comes to teaching your child about how to deal with emotions like boredom and frustration,” explains Grima.  

It’s thought that the educational potential of technology may start to be of most use after the age of two, but even for older kids, it’s important for parents to review apps, games and other technology, to ensure it’s suitable, educational if possible, age-appropriate and worthwhile.
dad playing trains with son

How to be screen savvy 

Consider the opportunity costs
Is your toddler’s tech time depriving them of more enriching activities like interacting with the family, which helps with language development and builds emotional bonds, or unstructured playtime, which stimulates creativity? 
 
Encourage playtime
Make ‘unplugged’ or tech-free playtime a daily priority, and join in whenever you can.
 
Create tech-free zones
Have a time where there is no electronic media present, for instance at mealtimes and in the lead-up to bedtime. Also, make sure your toddler’s bedroom is television-free.
 
Be a good role model
Be mindful about how and when you use technology in front of your bub or toddler, and if it’s taking you away from being present with them.
 
Make tech time interactive
“If your child is having screen time, enhance it by making it interactive,” urges Grima. “Talk to them about what they are watching, because it’s two-way communication that’s going to build neural circuitry and enhance brain development, rather than anything that is passive.” 
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