Mediaplanet sat down with Dr. Becky Kennedy to talk about the impact of screen time on children and tips for parents to manage their children’s screen usage.
In what ways can excessive screen time be harmful to a child’s development?
I’m big on avoiding shame and panic in parents. So, I wouldn’t say that excessive screen time is harmful to child development as much as I’d say let’s think together about the impact of screen time and how to build skills for kids so they can engage in independent play — which is often the alternative to screen time!
Screen time can interfere with a child learning the skills they need to develop in their early years — namely, the skills of emotion regulation, attention, frustration tolerance, and experimentation. Children thrive when they work through challenges, tap into their creativity, and explore the world through their senses — none of which can be accomplished when glued to an iPad. In addition, screens give children a way to experience immediate gratification without exuding any effort. Now, of course, we all want this break sometimes, but when kids have too much screen time, it can get in the way of developing the ability to focus, engage in hard work, bounce back from failure, and cope with distressing emotions.
What I think is often missed in the screen time debate is that parents need to help their children develop independent play and resilience skills, and these are the skills that allow children to engage in activities away from screen time. So, it’s not just about limited screen time as much as it’s about building a child’s ability to engage in other activities so that a parent doesn’t feel so reliant on screen time! What’s critical for parents to know is that learning how to tolerate frustration, developing creativity, and tapping into independence are not natural abilities for kids. So, when your child has a meltdown around building blocks, it’s not a sign that your child can’t play and needs an easier or screen-filled activity — it’s a sign that your child is working hard and needs your help learning to cope so that they can continue to develop their independent play skills.
What strategies and tools do you suggest to help children get off their screens?
Let’s go over a few tools. First, as parents, let’s embody authority — meaning, it’s our choice how much screen time our children get! Too often, parents tell me something like, “We’ve gotten into a bad pattern. My kids are on screens too often!” and don’t realize that they can always change their boundaries and rules here — even when a child protests or is upset! This comes back to a core Good Inside principle: children’s feelings don’t dictate a parent’s boundaries, and a parent’s boundaries don’t dictate a child’s feelings. In other words, set a screen time amount that feels right to you and allows your child to protest about it. You don’t need their approval to change your mind.
Second, talk to your child during a non-screen-time moment about screen time rules. Remember, you want to approach your child as if it’s you and your child against screen time struggles, not you against your child! So, tell your child something like this, “I want to be super clear about screen time rules this week. I want to limit screens to ensure you have time to do the other things kids need to do, like play, explore, create, and even be bored!” Yes, boredom is important to kids because it’s one thing that leads them to try new things.
Third, prepare your child in advance for how they will likely feel at the end of screen time. We call this “emotional vaccination” or pre-regulation at Good Inside. Words like, “Hey, before you get your iPad… let’s think together: how will it feel when I see iPad time is up? Ugh, that’ll be so tricky, right? Let’s take a deep breath and remind ourselves now, ‘I don’t like the ending, and I can cope’ or ‘It’s okay to be upset, and I’ll get more another day.’” Preparing kids for upsetting feelings is a much better strategy than trying to convince them not to have these feelings, as it’s the only way they can build basic coping skills.
How can parents and educators model healthy screen-use habits for children?
Our children are watching us and how we spend our attention teaches them what we value. And so, yes, let’s look at our relationship with screen use. Now, before we go any further, it’s okay that you love your phone and that you, like most of us, find it hard to resist checking! This doesn’t make you a bad person — it makes you perfectly human.
Second, let’s think about the patterns we have and how they impact our kids. If you’re like most parents (and like me!), you often carry your phone around with you even when you don’t have to. So Step 1 to modelling a healthy “screen relationship” is having phone-away time. If this is new to you, start small. Maybe set a five-minute timer, put your phone in your bathroom, close that door, and spend time with your kids away from your device! Showing them that we can step away from our screens is critical to our kids developing a healthy relationship with screens.
Next, schedule PNP (Play No Phone) time with your kids — this is a core tenet of Good Inside, that kids need our complete attention to feel safe and in control — which leads them to act in control. PNP time is one-on-one time with your child where you tell them, “You have my full attention, we can do anything you want to do… and my phone is nowhere to be found!” This shows a child that they are valuable and interesting, and not only does wonders for their self-esteem but also for your connection and for modelling that people-to-people non-screen interactions are worthy and important.
Why is outdoor time important for children, and how can we encourage them to spend more time outside?
Outdoor time is not only fun and refreshing (and muddy and messy!), it’s important for child development. First and foremost, outdoor time allows for movement and exploration, which leads to self-confidence. It’s almost impossible to be outside and not try something new or find something unexpected. As kids play outside, they develop fine and gross motor skills and build resilience as they climb, fall, get up, and solve problems as they move their bodies.
Second, outdoor time offers a break from time on devices. Unlike devices that provide a clear focus for a child, outdoor time encourages a child to create their own focus, allowing them to tap into their imagination as they’re forced to create their own play and fun.
Last, outdoor time often involves playing with other children, allowing them to build social skills as they negotiate with peers, exercise patience while waiting, and balance leading with listening. Parents can encourage time outside by modelling — putting devices down and playing outdoors themselves. Parents can also encourage time outside by tolerating their kids’ pushback when the device time is over.
After all, kids often feel upset when screen time is over. However, when parents hold boundaries with firmness and warmth (i.e., “I know, it’s a bummer that device time is over! You’re allowed to be upset”), kids learn to tolerate their feelings and look for other options for fun — like going outside!