Monday, August 11, 2014

The Dos and Don’ts of Screen Time for Kids

Originally published on Dr. Psych Mom, August 11, 2014.

Our beloved Dr. Psych Mom has wisely advised you to make your kids’ screen time work for you. Not only do I agree, but I’ve got a plan to help you balance your desire to raise healthy kids and sedate them momentarily with some TV.

Children under two don’t get anything out of watching TV, and it can be bad for them. Thus, you’re not supposed to let kids under two watch television. It gets worse…. you’re also not supposed to have the TV on in the background because the noise is distracting (I circumnavigate this issue with headphones while breastfeeding and wearing baby Frankie on my TreadClimber. Enjoy the picture of me doing so in all my postpartum glory.).

Brandi wearing her cranky, nap-refusing newborn while she watches Sister Wives and walks on her TreadClimber using her Sony wireless headphones so that Frankie doesn't get distracted by the TV. If you buy an audio splitter, you can hook up two headsets and watch TV with a pal.

I hear you screaming WHY?! at me, and I agree, it sucks, but there are good reasons. Unfettered TV access increases aggression, calorie intake, obesity, inactivity, ADHD-like behavior, and basically all of the –isms (e.g., consumerism, sexism). I know you don’t want that. TV is also passive, which is problematic because kids learn best by doing. TV is not doing. TV is sitting and watching which is why we f’ing love it as parents. It’s literally the only way to get our kids to stay in one place and not bother us for 22 minutes. So, Dr. Developmental-Psychologist-know-it-all, Ph.D., what can I do to get these sticky-fingered angels out of my face long enough to shower?! Keep reading. I swear I have some good suggestions. 

Interactive screen time with beneficial content is perfectly fine in moderation. This means that iPads, videogames, and computers are all better alternatives to TV for entertaining your kids long enough to check Facebook. In fact, I would argue that kids need experience with interactive screen mediums to be competent in our society. After all, research indicates that playing videogames in moderation (less than an hour a day) is linked to better social and emotional development. Moreover, there might be other benefits of playing videogames. For instance, videogamers might be better surgeons, so letting your kids play angry birds may get you closer to your dreams of them becoming well-respected doctors with summer homes in Southampton. Get those adorable monsters hooked up with some videogames!

When you run out to buy an X-Box, choose games that model behavior you want to encourage. I suggest non-violent, non-sexist games that are as educational as possible because exposure to violence and sexism is only going to make your kids think these things are okay. Video games that elicit exercise are even better. You want nice, smart kids, so provide games that model as much.

Once your kids turn two, go ahead and use TV to reclaim some of your sanity by doling out TV time in moderation (less than 2 hours a day). Combined with videogame time, that’s a whopping 3 hours of time when your kids aren’t tugging on your pant leg whining that they’re bored!

Again, control the content. What they see on TV will be what they want to do and be. I know you already know this, because you’re reading this while your kids are screaming “Let It Go” in your face and designing their Frozen Halloween costumes. Now, if only there was a show depicting children who love to sweep and mop….

Furthermore, try to limit exposure to TV advertisements because they make kids eat more. You know this intuitively already. If your kids see food, they want to eat it, even if they aren’t hungry. Although pudgy kids are cute, they’re more likely to be fat adults. I know you don’t want to give your future 40-year-olds diabetes. Thankfully, Netflix and Amazon have made avoiding commercials much easier.

In addition to imitation, starting around two, kids can learn from interactive educational TV (basically, any PBS kids programming), which incorporates kids by prompting them to respond and minimizes time spent staring soullessly at the TV. In fact, exposing them to interactive educational programming like Sesame Street is linked to increased knowledge of things important to school readiness. That’s right, I just told you that, when done right, TV could make your kids smarter.

Also, to steal the words of my host, make TV time work for you. Don’t just let it happen whenever your kids demand it. Plan it so you can get some crap done. Let them watch TV when you need them to shut up and stay in one place.

Lastly, you can use TV-time to up your parenting game by establishing a token-economy in which you give your kids tokens for good behavior that they use to “buy” TV-time. This long-term behavior modification plan allows you to discipline your children in a way that psychologists have deemed more humane (less screaming and spanking) and effective. Also, earning tokens to buy later TV-time is a good exercise for developing frontal lobes (the part of their brain that keeps them from tantruming, hitting, and coloring on your walls) by teaching them how to delay gratification (which is linked to tons of great outcomes) and self-regulate (so you don’t have to do it for them). Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to rub my 4-month old’s teething gums while we watch Californication. Hey! Nobody’s perfect—not even Professor Parenting.

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