On Motherhood: The Benefits of Screen Time for Kids

My fingers are shaking as I type out the title of this post "The Benefits of Screen Time for Kids"... I can almost hear the ground rumbling as the tirade of angry parents gallop towards me ready to judge and shame me. But I can't deny it any longer, I like it when my son watches TV or plays on the iPad. Nay, that doesn't even accurately convey what I'm trying to say. SCREEN TIME MAKES MY LIFE SO MUCH EASIER AND I LOVE THAT. I need that. I don't even feel guilty about that... most of the time. 

Before you read any further please know that if you do have a No Screen Time policy for your young family, I applaud you. I think it's fantastic and I support you in achieving this. As with everything in parenting, I am not trying criticise or shame anybody because their stance is different to mine, but overwhelmingly I feel society in general has a very biased view of screen time for young children (yes, based on valid research, I know) and so I want to outline some of the reasons how and why it works and benefits my family.

I'm not even taking the "screen time is good for my son" high road suggesting that he can count up to 100 at two years old thanks to thirty monitored minutes a day of educational games on the iPad. Nope, he doesn't do that. Most days, I just put the TV on so I can make dinner, or go to the toilet in peace, or answer a really important email (which I try to avoid but hey, I'm a freelancer and that means work-life balance is always a little blurred as I wrote in this post). Sometimes I put the TV on so I can have fifteen  minutes of uninterrupted Instagram time. Sometimes I hand over the iPad because he didn't nap long enough and I need a little more horizontal time in bed myself (see above photo). Sometimes my son watches TV for over an hour. Sometimes it's longer.

I'm not especially proud of any of this. It's not how I set out to parent (along with no screen time I also planned on never co-sleeping and not letting a grain of sugar pass his lips until he was four - oh silly naive child-free me), but I also didn't expect to find it so hard to GET EVERYTHING DONE. Aside from post-natal anxiety and depression, I've been open about how hard I've found becoming a mother in my Motherhood Diaries, and part of this is how I feel I'm forever on a hamster wheel trying to get everything done for my family and feel on top of it all. On good days I smile nostalgically about the lie-ins of yesteryear, and on bad days I frantically search for the Undo button, but on all days I am trying to do my best as a parent, and sometimes my best is switching on Peppa Pig or Nijntje, or letting him play a few games on the iPad so that I can make him a meal, wash his poo-sodden clothes and empty my bladder without interruption.

Is this me parenting at my best? Of course not. Is it me parenting at my worst? Absolutely not.

The Benefits of Screen Time for my Toddler ...and Me

Here are my reasons why I have found a little bit of screen time every day (yep, every day - go suck that through your teeth judgey people!) really helps me parent and actually connect with my son.

Everything in moderation

Aside from cigarettes, alcohol and narcotics (ahem), my partner and I have pretty much agreed that "everything in moderation" is a good rule to follow in terms of what our son consumes. He can try any food he wants to. He can eat cake when we eat cake (and oh boy, does he!). He can watch TV and sometimes play on the iPad when it's an appropriate time. We don't switch on a 24-hour marathon of Teletubbies (jeez) then leave the room. We make sure he's watching something mostly inoffensive and age-appropriate and we stay close by. My number one problem with children's TV is the advertising but we don't have that problem as we only have Netflix on our TV at home so he only ever watches a TV show we choose, as opposed to shows with advertising breaks. And despite my confession above that sometimes the TV stays on longer than an hour, we do try to  limit screen time and avoid it being too long. And we avoid meltdowns when screen time is over by giving our son 5-minute warnings that  the iPad is going away (that are nearly always five minutes before it stops... nearly) and having an activity (ahem, distraction) ready for when screen time is over like a meal, snack or another game or activity.

No forbidden fruit

Another advantage of the everything in moderation approach is that we avoid a "forbidden fruit" scenario where my son's fascination with something he can't have dominates and causes problem. TV is not a big deal for my son because he has been exposed to it fairly regularly for the last year and a half, but I've seen other children who have watched less television and they're definitely more demanding about watching it rather than playing games or doing an activity. My son rarely asks for TV (but interestingly will when he's tired or not feeling well, which makes me think he sees it more as a comfort) and will often start playing by himself after it's been on for ten minutes or so (and then I usually switch it off). As with everything involving children, there are always phases determining what they're interested in and how well behaved they are with something, but I feel we're helping my son have a healthy relationship with screens rather than restricting something that will ultimately create an increased interest.

When my son is older I will talk to him about TVs and phones and computers. I will discuss the positives and the negatives. I will ask him what he likes and what he doesn't like. Hopefully, these conversations will help us figure out the best way for him to have screentime in the future rather than me dictating what happens.

Screens are his future

Like it or not, screens (phones, TVs, tablets, computers and all these things that sit in other products) are the future. They are our children's futures. They will use screens and computers more than we will. Most of the two year olds in the world right now will grow up and work with a computer every single day. With this in mind it feels wrong to restrict his exposure to them.

This TED talk really drove some important lessons home to me and it opened my eyes to some many advantages of screentime. Speaking mostly about infants using tablets, the talk discusses how research has shown that tablets can not only improve early learning but they can also be used to help scientists understand children's cognitive development, which in turn can find ways to help early years learning.

Screens aren't just the future. They're here right now and children see their parents use phones, tablets and computers all the time (especially phones). I don't want to appear hypocritical when he sees me use a phone or computer all the time and yet he is not allowed to, For this reason, I'm not completely comfortable with the idea that children should never have screentime until a certain age. Personally, I would feel like I'm trying to protect my son from or deny him something he will inevitably come into contact with. Why not introduce it to him at an early stage, in a safe environment and in a positive way? And as the TED talk highlights, by talking with your children about the things they do on their tablets or the TV shows they watch, there's a real opportunity for growth and bonding.

He is learning things...

I'm fairly certain my son has learned colours, shapes, numbers and now slowly, some letters, thanks to some of the TV shows he watches and some of the games he plays. I'm not saying he wouldn't have learned them otherwise, but it's been a consistent way for him to get his head around these concepts with additional encouragement from us pointing out shapes and colours as we cycle around Amsterdam, or painting shapes and mixing colours during my craft sessions with him.

Again listen to the TED talk I linked to above and understand that our anxieties about screen time mean we forget the opportunities technology can bring children.

The greater good

Yes, sometimes screen time is a cheat and a shortcut and a cop out - I totally agree. It's an easier way to parent, but sometimes that's okay. Just in case nobody told you, there is no-one handing out parenting medals and awards for always working your bum off and running yourself into the ground by doing endless educational activities with your child every day, not to mention ensuring they eat three homecooked nutrient dense organic meals. Everybody has different approaches, standards and beliefs about what makes a good parent, but the only definition that really counts is the one you have. Personally, I feel a good parent is one that meets their child's needs without compromising their own. I've found that screentime helps me achieve this by giving me cooking time, or cleaning time, or work time, or heck, much-needed break time. I do not use and abuse screentime. I don't use it to take a three-hour nap (I WISH!) or paint my nails, or have an hour-long gossip on the phone (although part of me thinks it's totally okay if you do!). I use it so I can feel more in control of the many things I've gotta do for my boy and our family. (I also want to add that we only hand over the iPad when he's travelling, he's sick or I'm sick (and I include poor mental health days in that) or when he's having his haircut so we do limit his use of that screen, mostly because I don't want him using all the battery up every other day!)

Balance is best

Every day my son has at least one twenty- to thirty-minute session of reading books (before his bed- and naptime). Every day my son does at least one type of craft be it playdough, painting or drawing (or something else - he's currently quite into making necklaces with beads and shoe strings). Every day my son has hands-on (and sometimes a little rough!) tumble playtime with his Dad - making forts, tunnels or just jumping around on our bed. Every day my son runs around inside and outside asking us to "Race! Race!" or just in his own little world. Every day my son pretends to be dinosaur or he "cooks" me a meal at his kitchen. Every day my son has access to a train set, toy cars, books, puzzles, soft toys, Duplo building bricks and an assortment of other toys and I try to sit down and play with him for at least half an hour every single day with my phone well out of reach. My son is in daycare three days a week where he doesn't stop playing all day long (often dodging his nap which the workers love!). My son is with me two days a week and we go to a playgroup, dancing lessons or to the local park. Our weekends are usually dominated more with getting together with other families than staying at home, and the recent cold weather has made me realise how much we usually go out and how unusual (and challenging!!) it is for us to stay inside all day.

In other words, my son does a lot of things that don't involve a screen and we are with him for most of them. I don't think we would be quite so liberal with our use of screen time if this wasn't the case.

Yes, I know it possibly sounds like I'm justifying my use of screen time to myself (and I suspect I am) but I hope you can also put your own possible use of screen time into perspective with all the other things you do with your child.

There are real benefits for you and your kiddo too

Most kids struggle to sit still for longer than thirty seconds. Most kids want to do something new every five minutes (if you're lucky). Most kids will only give you cuddles when they're tired, sick or reading books. This is all normal and wonderful and I love that my son is so active and busy and curious. But sometimes I want a cuddle. Sometimes I don't want to be jumping from activity to activity. Sometimes I want to feel like I'm calling the shots without actually shouting or being bossy.

Thanks to screen time my son and I cuddle more. Thanks to screen time my son and I can have half an hour of quiet time at the end of a busy day. Thanks to screen time I can help him go from a manic, fidgetty, feral animal to a normalish toddler again. Thanks to screen time my son actually eats better (because he is so incredibly fussy and it was recommended to us by a paedeatric nurse that we have the TV on in the background to see if that "distracts" him from tantruming or refusing food and much to my surprise it actually does!). 

Having regular cuddles with my son is incredibly important to me and screentime helps this happen. I know in the future when my son would rather be playing outside with his mates and cuddles are totally off the menu, I will look back on all these cuddles and quiet moments with the most wonderful memories and it won't even cross my mind that the TV was on.

What our son watches during screen time

So if you want to know what we do watch on TV with my son (who is currently two-and-a-half) you can find a list below. Most of these are the ones we have on our Netflix account as my one strict policy on TV is that my son sees minimal advertising, but a few of these are from CBeebies and can be found on YouTube too, though we only ever let him watch YouTube Kids when he's sitting right next to us because it's a minefield!).

Hey Duggee - Definitely made for the parents. The voiceovers are hilarious (Choo-Choo the panda is our favourite character) and the artwork is for design junkies. There is also a Hey Duggee app

Octonauts - My son loves fishes and whales (everything is a whale apart from small fish) so he likes these adventures of underwater rescue squad made up of bunnies, cats and bears, who are all the same shape and size, obviously.

Robo Car Poli - A great one to talk about as they rescue people in fairly minimal danger and now my son likes to play "Help! Help!" games with his cars.

Timmy Time - Made by the people who did Wallace & Gromit so of course it's good.

The Adventures of Chuck & Friends - Trucks that talk and play. A two-year-old boy's dream come true. Also this show has the catchiest and not completely awful theme tune.

Puffin Rock - Beautiful cartoon, atmospheric music and songs, characters with the most Irish accents and lessons about marine life. What's not to love?!

The iPad games my son loves (and we don't hate)

We have an old(ish) iPad that we only really use for Netflix or giving to my son, and this iPad holder is hands down the best €20 we spent on protecting it - highly recommended because it buffers it if it falls while also making it easy to hold and stand.

CBeebies app - A range of games for all pre-school (and older!) ages. Love this.

Smart Baby Shapes - My son started playing this when he was about 18 months and it scared us a bit how good he got at differentiating colours and shapes.

Shape Sorter - As above!

Dinosaur Truck - Make your own monster truck then have a dinosaur drive it around collecting coins. Sometimes I like to play this too.

Dinosaur Digger - As above just with diggers.

Train Builder - Made by the same people who do the Dinosaur games so fairly similar but with trains and monsters!

Toonia Colorbook - Colouring-in app that helps you stay inside the lines. I have to admit I completed several of these by myself after my son was asleep!

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Frances M. Thompson

Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before starting a family with her Australian partner. Frankie is the author of three short story collections, and is a freelance writer for travel and creative brands. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her two young sons around Amsterdam.
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.

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