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SAVING CHILDHOOD

Trying to be an intentional parent in 2020 is nothing short of overwhelming and frightening — and on most days — downright exhausting. There’s just so much information to sift through and so many choices to make.

Should I spend $3 more on organic strawberries to reduce my child’s pesticide and toxin intake? How long can my kid watch this screen before it depletes his brain cells? And — wait, why is there yellow dye in our pickles? Isn’t that supposed to be bad for us?

It seems like when I was a kid in the ‘80s, my parents’ biggest worry was breaking up fights between my brother and me over what tape to pop in the VHS player. (Duh — Cinderella!)

I don’t know if it actually was, but life seemed simpler then.

Waking up on Saturday mornings with a big bowl of Fruit Loops and Tom & Jerry cartoons was a benchmark of my childhood, mostly because it was special; something we waited for all week long, and something we did together.

Unlike many households today, technology didn’t dominate our time as a family. We read books, we played outside for hours and we tried on an excessive amount of dress-up clothes. Once we finished all of that, we were allowed to be bored.  Yes, good old-fashioned boredom. (GASP!)

And guess what? Out of our boredom, imagination and creativity had room to blossom. Our fireplace hearth turned into a world stage, fit with the best “spoon microphone” you’d ever seen. Old pieces of foam became a lemonade stand. Discarded makeup we found in a drawer became the color palette for a funny clown face (sorry, Mom!).

As parents today, we still have the power to create this same kind of childhood for our kids, but the waters seem murky. And they feel judgy. And they feel scary.

The reality is that our kids are growing up in a digital age that we just didn’t. Many technological advances have changed how we parent, and we are just blindly moving forward because there’s no way of stopping advancement.

We’ve traded the gathered experiences of the television for the individual, overly-accessible experiences of mobile media.

But technology isn’t going anywhere, and it’ll just keep advancing. So, whether we like it or not, part of parenting in the 21st century is figuring out how to teach kids to form healthy digital media habits from early childhood onward.

Sure, we’re all going to use screens and phones from time to time to help us make it through the trenches (monthly Costco trip — I’m looking at you!). But little kids don’t know how to self-monitor, so they’re going to have to learn it from us.

Toddlers need connection and conversation through activities that don't involve screens.

Screen Time and Toddlers

The gut-honest truth is that doctors and researchers just don’t have enough information yet to determine how the excessive long-term effects of screen use will impact children as they grow older. Studies on this topic are not only limited, but also inconclusive and somewhat contradictory. But this doesn’t mean that we should use free reign. It means we should proceed with caution.

According to Common Sense Media’s executive summary on technology addiction for 2016, “even if children are not addicted, we should be cautious of the ways that problematic media use could affect their ability to stay focused or negatively impact their social and emotional well-being.”

The danger arises when parents use mobile devices and screens as a behavioral regulation tool, such as when dining at restaurants or as a distraction to soothe. The research is not conclusive, but it is possible that these short-term solutions can have the potential to cause social or emotional repercussions in kids later.

Yasas Chandra Tanguturi, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the assistant medical director in the Child and Adolescent Unit at Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital, suggests that parents pause.

“There is research revealing children as young as 8 -13 years of age are experiencing increased anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts as a result of cyber bullying,” Tanguturi says.

Maybe that statistic doesn’t seem to connect to toddlers swiping on a screen, but it actually does. Creating a culture where a child is most often in a digital space may produce an unhealthy, addictive hunger for and reliance on digital media as he grows older. 

While we can’t exclusively point fingers at technology for the rise of childhood mental health concerns, it’s worth examining deeper.

If parents make a few changes early on in childhood to positively impact the course of their children’s lives, will it help?

It’s possible — and that in itself warrants a closer look.

Toddlers and Too Much Screen Time

While digital media isn’t exclusively negative (research does show that interactive sites can effectively teach concrete skills), The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explains that “other important pre-academic skills such as self-regulation, empathy, social skills, and problem-solving” may be lacking. 

Lauren McClain M.D., a board-certified pediatrician with Tennessee Pediatrics in Thompson’s Station, says that excessive screen time correlates with lower language skills, lower literacy skills and less imaginative play.

Other areas of a child’s life are impacted, too:

• Sleep habits and patterns
Watching screens before bedtime has been shown to promote adverse effects on the quality and amount of sleep children get.

• Physical exercise/outside time
Young children need more exploratory, unstructured play in their natural environments, promoting healthy sensory and visual-motor skills.

• Connection and sociability
There is a difference in toddlers learning a skill on an age-appropriate digital media app and experiencing it in real life. When parents rely on screens too heavily, children miss out on human connection.

Screens Are a Tool, Not a Crutch

The principle behind monitoring digital media use is not about removing screen time completely from your child’s life, it’s about using screens collaboratively as a tool rather than a crutch.

Recommendations for toddlers from the APP include:

• Younger than 18 months: Avoid digital media other than video chatting.

• Children 18 - 24 months: Use digital media in moderation and always with a co-viewing adult. After viewing, talk about what you've seen.

• Children ages 2 - 5: Limit screen time for preschool children to ONE hour a day of high-quality programming.

Tanguturi says that playing with your children in downtime and then guiding them through what they are watching on screens is a healthy approach. You're right: it's a lot of oversight. But in general, kids learn best when experiences are shared.    

If you want your toddler to develop a healthy relationship with technology, it’s imperative to model the behavior you desire. If there’s a mobile screen between you and your toddler on a consistent basis, your child may grow up thinking that what’s on your screen is more important than what’s in their hearts. Stick to the family rules you’ve set, and make sure to put your own mobile devices down when your child is trying to connect with you.

Before the screens come out in the morning, try engaging your toddler in a little fun free play.

Connect Without Screens

The bottom line? Toddlers need ongoing connection and conversation LIKE WE ALL DO. They need to start with that from an early age so they can love it and want it in their lives. You can achieve this for your little one by not allowing digital media to dominate his culture and carving out “unplugged time.”

Find activities that don’t involve screens and use that time to reconnect — and get into it!

“Play and talk with siblings and family, play outside and anything else low-tech,” says McClain. “All of this encourages a toddler’s imagination, social skills, language skills and physical development as well, she adds.

Whining and Fussing

If things have gotten out of hand and you have a toddler who whines and fusses the moment you take his screen away, take heart. This is happening in homes across the world.

Don’t add to the inevitable parent guilt moms and dads face every day. There’s no way you can get it right every time. Give yourself some grace, and then decide to make a change.

“Kids are resilient,” Tanguturi says. “Something that becomes a pattern can always be changed. If you model it, stick to the rules and be consistent, your kids will follow,” she adds.

All hope isn’t lost!

You can create a developmentally healthy culture at home for your little one amid the challenges all around you. Adapt your habits and your kids will, too.

A Healthy Day With Screens for a Toddler

• Start the day with some physical activity such as bundling up and taking a nature walk together

• Have “free play” time where your toddler gets to lead the activity

• Get your child playing with cars, trains, dolls, dress up, or arts and crafts daily

• Avoid using a device as the only solution to your toddler’s behavior

• When it’s time for screen time, choose high-quality programming and watch it together

• If you really have to, go ahead and hide the devices altogether until you’re able to create a reasonable balance for your child at home

Remember, this whole parenthood thing isn’t about perfection; nobody can achieve that. It’s about consistency, intention, and most of all, love.

READ MORE on TODDLERS:

Imaginative Play for LIttle Ones

Indoor Play Spots for Tots