There’s been an endless debate about what the right amount of digital media exposure for young children is. The first article I remember reading about such “detrimental” effects was written in the late nineties about Japanese children. In the report, the young children were losing their social skills to TV and video games, and once confronted with another child, they lacked the skills to interact or to play or even to just communicate with one another anymore. How terrible!
In the meantime, more and more research has been conducted on TV and Co. and its effects. Everyone knows now that too much screen time is bad for your health, no matter how old you are. Adults start having problems sleeping, and children start having problems concentrating, or worse, develop lasting forms of aggression. But with the evolution of the TV as the home device that has it all, from cable to on-demand movies, to media-server capabilities and even internet and social media access, it’s hard to avoid using one around children. Which I think is more challenging than just not owning one to begin with. This was where our choice made our family life easier. Without access, there was less risk of excessive use…and abuse, and more time for being outside or just being together.
I still remember that article to this day, or rather I remember my image of those poor young children who, in my head, were slapping and screaming at each other, frustrated and angry that the other wouldn’t do what the other child wanted. I imagined them thinking, “It has always worked on screen, why not now?!” Surely, I didn’t want my child to be anti-social, so I kept a mental note about that article, promising myself I would do my best to prevent such a fate for my future children.
Too Much Screen Time
My husband and I had been functioning well without a TV even before starting our family. Although we were quite satisfied with enjoying an occasional movie on the laptop maybe once or twice a month, we had been contemplating about finally purchasing one. But it wasn’t until a few years ago when we consciously decided against upgrading our TV-free household.
After a visit from a colleague and his daughter, my husband and I were left a little distraught at the apparent effects of too much screen time on a toddler. To us, the little girl was only calm when she was in front of a screen, watching videos, or playing games or just tap-tap tapping away. She even spent her mealtimes glued to her device in order to sit still and easily be spoon-fed. But as soon as she had to let go, she would immediately run around screaming, spilling things, if not breaking the rest and just wreaking havoc.
It seemed evident that the real world was just not moving fast enough or reacting fast enough to her tap-tap tapping. Her little brain must have been screaming for more— touch the milk bottle here (whoops, spilt!), touch the drawer there (bang!), skip skip skip, shout (waaaaah!), and bang goes the head on the doorknob (Papa!) — at which point she had to be caught and pacified… (enter touchscreen device). At the time, our oldest son was only a few months old, and we had always envisioned ourselves enjoying a lot of activities with him, taking him on bike-rides and hiking and skiing and traveling with him —not chasing him around like a running hazard. And because of that memorable visit, we were convinced thereafter to keep our home as screen-free as possible.
With our final decision to invest the TV budget elsewhere; we initially considered finally upgrading to smartphones instead. But that need also didn’t grow deeper, so we eventually purchased one hand-held device (mainly for my husband’s studies), and for everyone’s sanity, kept a few rules about its use at home:
1) not more than 30 minutes during the day
2) never during mealtimes
3) preferably only during our son’s naptimes or after his bedtime
The idea was to stay as organic as possible in this digital age, without falling behind in modern technology. And given that we probably would have been able to do better upkeep with the house if we did have the TV-Babysitter, the first year of adjusting to parenthood was instead often spent outside the house, traveling and visiting places, trying to escape the lull at home.
We made it a point to start establishing a routine already in the early months, in order to help our son feel secure in the predictable activities of the day like mealtimes and naptimes, regardless of where we were. In return, we were able to stay happy active parents with a generally happy little baby always by our side.
When I started working part time again when our son was about a year old, I readily adopted the same schedule my son had in his daycare for my free days with him during the week. It entailed a lot of routine, and kept us busy from 7am-7pm. We spent at least 2-3hours each day outside, taking a walk or visiting a playground or running errands. The rest of the day then consisted of relatively fixed mealtime and naptime routines, and because I was on my own during the day, my son had to also assist me in our household chores and cooking. And those activities alone already took a lot of time. And otherwise we spent the time we had “reading” picture books, listening to music, learning songs or just playing to entertain ourselves. In the evenings, the bedtime routine in itself lasted about 90 minutes. So there wasn’t really so much time left for spending in front of a digital screen anyway. On weekends, we made a point to spend the entire day outside, visiting friends or family, or being outdoors, or just being in a city for a change.
Although it was a challenge in the beginning to keep our toddler busy all the time, having no access to any form of TV probably made it easier to deal with. Without the option to turn on a screen to burn time, we had to deal with each other instead. But now because of those screen-free days, our preschooler has no problems spending hours alone “reading” his picture books himself or playing in his room on his own, buying me time for other things for myself as well.
In the meantime, it’s not that the three-year old still doesn’t know what a touch-screen does, rather that he knows it is something for reading; for writing or calling friends and relatives overseas, particularly Lolo and Lola; for listening to music; for taking pictures and videos; but also occasionally during his monthly haircut, for watching short online cartoons or music videos as well! He’s also already mastered the simple gestures like swiping and zooming and can also operate the camera button to take pictures, which is his favorite. And all that, given that we only allow 5-10minutes of supervised screen access per day, if at all. Fortunately, despite the limited access, our son easily returns to his natural interest in his toys and books, his music, and make-believe friends, rather than clambering for more digital stimuli.
Now with our second son, currently 8 months old, who is also intrigued by the little screen whenever we use it to make video calls to friends and family, we make it a point to keep the associations simple. Instead, we encourage natural play between the brothers and now the two boys do well entertaining each other with just themselves. The big brother especially has taken to playing around his baby brother whenever he knows I need to quickly leave the baby to do something somewhere else in the house. The baby’s giggles alone already makes the big brother feel rewarded, in turn it makes me feel triumphant that at this age, my two sons are already getting along well.
On any given day, our three-year old entertains us all with his witty ideas, playing pirate with a paper-roll, or knight with a cardboard box, or building fantasy planes and robots and boats with his building blocks. Whenever we’re outside, he will pick up a stick and claim it his sword one minute, and his paddle the next. Sometimes he gets so excited with his ideas, we’re forced to play along to find out what happens next. One minute he’s a farmer with his cows, the next minute he’s a fireman extinguishing a flame, and then an owl hunting for mice. With all the roles he chooses play, he’s like an interactive 3D entertainment system, just better, and definitely more original! Well so who needs a TV if you’ve got one of these?
A version of this article appeared on The Asian Parent Online Magazine published in January 2016.