I recently watched a great Tedx talk by Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician and epidemiologist from Seattle who’s done an enormous amount of research in the effects of TV and media in children in their early development stages. In it, Dr. Christakis explains the various researches that have been conducted to explore the effects of brain stimulation as it relates to media, so lots of graphs, colorful pictures, and supporting data to shame the most careless and non-involved parents out there.
Out of his work, however, one thing really caught my eye. He likens media management to eating diets.
we ask parents to substitute quality programming for violent programming, much like they’d swap carrots for potato chips in their child’s lunch.
Then it hit me: I really need to start exercising again.
This is a subtle, but important, point and one I really believe to be the key to changing our habits related to screen consumption. If we can begin to look at media as a treat that only a healthy, developed mind deserves, in small doses and reasonable quantities, we can begin to “shape” our kids’ minds into healthy ones.
In order to see if this comparison would hold true in all accounts, I decided to inspect what the experts’ recommendations are for having healthy kids when it comes to eating habits. A quick search pointed me to “10 Tips for Parents,” offered by Dr. Mary L. Gavin on KidsHealth.org, which we will try to use here to fit our goals for healthy “screen diet.”
1. Parents control the supply lines.
We’re off to a good start. This is an easy one to port over to TV viewing, right? Parents should be at the helm of supplying the appropriate quantity and the proper quality of content to our young viewers. However, this is about EMPOWERING your children to make good choices and less about dictating when and how long they will interact with media. I am a true believer that kids will choose to experience all sorts of things if those choices are truly made available to them (and they are aware of it). Remember: it’s not just about cutting screen time, but increasing their opportunities to choose less screen time.
2. From the foods you offer, kids get to choose what they will eat or whether to eat at all
Didn’t I just say that? I’m brilliant! So, again, whatever media you make available for your child to consume, it’s important to give your children the feeling that THEY are making wise decisions when it comes to the quality of the content. By instilling this sense of responsibility in them at an early age, they will feel empowered to continue to make wise choices as they gain more control of their time.
3. Quit the “clean-plate club.”
This one might be a little tougher, but I’d like to think of this as a warning to parents who use TV and games as a way to occupy their kids while getting things done. If your child is aimlessly flipping channels and not directly engaged in learning opportunities that media has to offer, it’s time to turn it off! It is also a good gauge of how involved parents really are in their children’s viewing habits. If you don’t currently know how many minutes (yes, minutes) little Andy is sitting in front of ALL your devices on a daily basis, it’s time to change YOUR behavior.
4. Start them young.
Well, this couldn’t be any clearer. Screen time management becomes more important the younger the child is, so start creating a healthy framework EARLY. As I’ve stated here before, children under 2 should have between ZERO and ZERO minutes of screen time daily, so the expectations are very clear and easy to follow. Studies have shown that even background “viewing” is detrimental to their development. As they get older, it’s crucial to build healthy habits for them and for YOU, as a parent, and to build a balanced routine. Remember, content matters, too!
5. Rewrite the kids’ menu.
We’ve already covered here (hmm… actually, I think it was on my facebook page) that violent content before bed time disrupts a child’s ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Beyond that, we fall into your personal choices for educational material, morals and values. My kids are currently addicted to Mythbusters and Phineas and Ferb; each with its own benefits. Again, making a variety of media available and talking about how you feel about these shows in a positive way will give your children the cognitive tools to decide for themselves later.
6. Drink calories count &
7. Put sweets in their place.
I’m combining these two as they are pretty similar and fall under the same category for our purposes. Screen time is obviously not limited to TV time. The average American home today contains a plethora of media alternatives for kids, including smart phones, console games, tablets, handheld gaming units, computers, laptops, and portable DVD players (our almost-3-year-old is frighteningly proficient in operating most of these devices). You must include all of these when managing your allowances and all recommendations on content also apply.
8. Food is not love.
Hmm, this one is tough. We use screen time as a reward all the time in our home and I encourage parents to do the same. This works two-fold: first, it validates to them that this activity is secondary to their mental and physical development. Second, it motivates the parent to be actively aware of time spent and to also be involved during screen sessions. So food is not love, but screen time is.
9. Kids do as you do.
For better or for worse, right? When I get home from work and my kids are watching TV or playing video games, I often head over to our play area and start kicking a ball or shooting a hockey puck against the wall. Pretty soon the little rascals come joining in and forget about screens (at least for a bit). Turning off the screen is not enough, as reported in this article. Kids need to be motivated to get involved in physical activities. This isn’t really an issue of screen time. If your kid spent all day reading books, you would end up with the same health concerns.
10. Limit TV and computer time
Ok, we’re beginning to sound redundant now. Movies, video games and TV shows are valuable tools for learning and entertainment and should be viewed as friends, not foe. The idea is to arm your children with the knowledge and disposition to make wise choices and maintain a balanced diet of electronic media in their lives. The more YOU do now by being actively involved, the less likely they will be to build a dependency on it. The Attention Span generation just needs, well, a little attention.