Healthy Habits

Screen Kids

Keeping families on course through the demanding reality of media and devices by Dr. Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane
kids on cell phones

Now that media, computers, mobile phones and tablets are a fixture in homes, schools and beyond, the impact has upsides and downsides, particularly for families. In their book “Screen Kids: 5 Skills Every Child Needs in a Tech-Driven World,” Dr. Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane delve deeply into how technology impacts identity and relationships and what parents can do to keep their family healthy and children developing well. Dr. Gary Chapman, is the bestselling author of “The Five Love Languages.” Arlene Pellicane is a mom, speaker, author of books including “Parent Rising” and host of The Happy Home podcast. This is part two of this series.

The temptation to use screens to entertain babies and toddlers is stronger than ever. You almost feel obligated as a parent to utilize the latest and greatest educational software available. But the American Association of Pediatrics  reports adverse health effects of direct media use as well as parental media use (background media) in the life of a young child. Children under two years of age process information differently than older children because they are at an earlier stage of cognitive development. While you may think a television show or phone app is doing a great job teaching your baby the ABCs, media use has not been proven to promote language skills in this age group. Young children learn language best when it’s presented by a live person, not on a screen. 

A study from 2017 reported that nearly half (49%) of children eight or under often or sometimes watch TV or videos or play video games in the hour before bedtime. Video viewing is the predominant screen activity for children eight or under, and 42% say the TV is on at home “always” or “most of the time,” regardless of whether someone is watching it. 

What is the effect of this background media on a child? Studies have shown that when the television is on, it may be background noise to the child, but it often moves to the foreground for the parent. A child’s ability to learn language is directly related to the amount of talk time he or she has with a parent. When the television is on, Mom or Dad is less likely to engage in conversation, resulting in a smaller vocabulary for that child. 

Researchers examined toddlers aged one, two, and three and found that background television not only reduced the length of time that a child played, but it also reduced the child’s focused attention during play. Other studies suggest that background media might interfere with cognitive processing, memory, and reading comprehension. In spite of these negative effects, almost one-third of children have a television in their bedroom by age three. We do not believe it is wise for any child, regardless of age, to have a television in their own room. Many of these young children are using the TV as a sleep aid. However, television viewing before falling asleep is associated with irregular sleep schedules and poor sleep habits that affect mood, behavior, learning, and relationships.

Needed: Words of Affirmation

Every child has a love tank, a place of emotional strength that can fuel him through the challenging days of childhood and adolescence. With the rise of screen time, many children are hearing more words from their screens than in actual conversation with family members. A child isn’t going to get many meaningful words of affirmation from a television or tablet. Even if he wins a video game and sees the screen flash, that can’t be equated with hearing someone you care about say, “Well done!”

There’s very little a device can do to provide words of affirmation, unless it’s a parent using it to speak or text words of affirmation to his or her child. [Ed. note: Affirmation is one of the 5 skills the authors explore as essentials for children to succeed in a tech-driven world.]  Maybe when your older child is walking home from school, you can text “Your smile makes my day. Love you. See you soon!” Technology can play a role in delivering positive words to your child, but obviously it shouldn’t be limited to that. Sometimes a preoccupation with screens on the part of the parent or child can stop that flow of affirming words to a child’s heart.

Kids who thrive on words of affirmation also shrivel under criticism or condemnation. Cruel words shared on social media or texts are potentially devastating. That’s why it’s essential for parents to diminish the input of screens and instead focus on speaking life into their children.

Speak words of affirmation to your child each day. Here are some examples to get you started:

  • If I could choose any child in the world, I would choose you.
  • I noticed (insert a specific improvement), and I’m proud of your effects.
  • I woke up this morning and thought, “What a privilege it is to be your father/mother.”
  • I enjoy it when you’re around.
  • You handled that situation very well.
  • You are a hard-working, excellent student.

Digital rules aren’t only good for kids; they are great for parents too. Be specific when you create rules about time limits, content allowed, and what you make exceptions for. 

Use positive language when you are creating new digital house rules for yourself. Don’t put the emphasis on disconnecting, as if you are losing out. Instead focus on connecting and what you will be gaining through spending more time with your kids. Cal Newport, author of “Digital Minimalism,” encourages us to establish a digital philosophy. What do you want technology to do for your kids and for your family? Keep to those values and avoid using tech when it doesn’t serve those values. 

Parents, we must think about the purpose of technology in our homes, and then design a media plan that supports those goals. Once you have a plan, stick with it. Your kids probably won’t say, “Mom, it’s so great we’re cutting back to just half hour of YouTube a day. That’s going to give me so much more time to get my reading done!” No, your child is going to kick and scream and exert tremendous pressure so you’ll cave in. Imagine yourself as a redwood tree, tall, immovable, with roots underneath the surface. No matter what your child says, you will not be moved. 

Excerpted from “Screen Kids: 5 Skills Every Child Needs in a Tech-Driven World” by Dr. Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane (©2020). Published by Northfield Publishing. Used by permission.