During the winter months, it’s common for many families to spend more time indoors due to colder weather and fewer daylight hours.
Unfortunately, children may also end up spending an increased amount of time using electronics to entertain or divert themselves from the dreaded childhood condition commonly known as “boredom.” As parents and caregivers, we must be aware of the time our children are committing to digital media and regularly monitor the content they are exposed to. It’s also essential to create and engage opportunities for children to socialize and interact. Encourage creativity, curiosity, and the use of their imaginations through high yield learning and free, unstructured play.
It’s no secret that our children are growing up in a high-tech, digital world. As parents and caregivers, we must protect them from inappropriate content, messaging, and marketing. We need to help them develop healthy digital media habits. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to limit child, and adolescent media use since overexposure may be linked to increased instances of childhood obesity, depression, sleep disorders, poor school performance, high-risk behavior, and cyberbullying.
As a general pediatrician and concerned parent, I wanted to share my five recommendations for promoting healthy media use amongst our children:
1. As parents and caregivers, we must be highly engaged and actively aware of the type of media our children are being exposed to. We must also consistently strive to limit their hours of usage, especially during school hours. First, ask yourself: “Is my child being exposed to media content that’s inappropriate?” This assessment should, of course, be based on each child’s age and respective maturity level. However, there is content out there that will always be inappropriate, no matter the age.
We need to have safeguards in place on all devices. Next, ask yourself: “What does my child’s media usage profile look like on a typical day?”
What is their overall “digital footprint”? This assessment needs to include all “screen time,” including school computer use, smartphones/texting, social media, TV/streaming, internet research/searches, GIFs/memes/YouTube, online music, online shopping, etc. Asking our children to limit the use of electronics and technology will help foster and create much-needed emotional bonds and can provide key opportunities for improving their social skills.
2. Avoid exposure to any electronic device at least one hour before bedtime. As pediatricians, we discourage the presence and use of TVs, computers, tablets, and smartphones within children’s bedrooms. As a proponent of good sleep hygiene, bedrooms should be “electronics-free” zones.
Are you aware that the usage of electronics before bedtime can affect your child’s ability to fall asleep? Electronic device usage can reduce both the quantity and quality of sleep and potentially negatively impact a child’s school performance. As an alternative, consider reading a book aloud, telling a favorite story, or singing a song as part of your child’s bedtime routine. Children greatly enjoy this type of personal interaction with parents and caregivers.
3. Encourage media-free, consistently occurring, family meals, and take these opportunities to talk with your children. Family meals are a great chance to catch up on the events of the day, to learn more about each child’s school experiences, or to simply find out what is happening in their relationships with teachers and peers. If you choose to watch TV or are focused on media during dinner, there will be less family interaction, and you may be exposed to advertisements or content that may not be age-appropriate. Consider family meals as a wonderful way to bond with your children.
4. Younger children learn more from interacting with a parent or caregiver than from watching TV or playing digital games. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children younger than two years avoid digital media and TV. Instead, parents are encouraged to play games, read books, and interact with their children face to face. For children greater than two years of age, pediatricians recommend that parents and caregivers co-watch high-quality programming with their children, limiting screen usage to one hour or less per day.
5. As parents and caregivers, we must also consider the example we are setting. We must actively role-model healthy and responsible digital media usage to our children. As we take steps to curtail our children’s digital media use, we must be acutely aware of our own. We need to ask ourselves tough questions and take the necessary steps to “walk the walk,” not just “talk the talk.” Our children deserve guidance by example, instead of the old fallback of “do as I say, not as I do.”
We must be willing to ask ourselves: “Do we use digital media as a babysitter? Is social media more important than spending time with our children? Is answering our phones more important than having a family meal? How much time do we spend on our own devices? Do we allow our devices and digital media use to interfere with our relationships?
We must remember that our children have the greatest opportunity to thrive when we interact with them face to face. Children develop stronger social skills through quality time with family and friends, forming the critical emotional bonds needed to achieve developmental milestones. Computer programs cannot replace a parent’s impact by taking the time to teach their children how to read.
Television and digital media cannot rival a caregiver’s commitment to personally model how to write the alphabet. YouTube videos can never substitute for a loved one’s hugs or kind words. As children continue to grow up surrounded by digital devices, we must never forget the importance of guiding, teaching, encouraging, correcting, interacting, and playing with our children. Children deserve our time, our focus, our strength, and our love.
Meaningful relationships and personal contact can never be replicated in a virtual world. No matter what time of year it is, moderation and decisive detachment from devices could help our children learn the importance and immersive experience of truly living versus the superficial experience of merely existing.
There is beauty in being, hearing in listening, wisdom in witnessing. Let’s be for our children, what we needed from our parents and caregivers.
Johanna Vidal Phelan is a pediatrician.
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