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10 Pro Tips for Families Navigating Parenting in a Screen-Filled World
Creator of New Digital Wellness Guide Advises Noggin Parents
Parents and pediatricians have worried about how screens would affect children’s growing minds for decades — a worry that has only escalated recently as families have relied on screens for play, learning, and social interaction during the coronavirus pandemic.
Luckily, a handy, science-based Family Digital Wellness Guide just arrived to help families make smart choices as they navigate parenting in a screen-filled world.
“What we wanted to do is bring the science to bear on complex questions,” said Dr. Michael Rich, founder and director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Center on Media and Child Health, the organization that created the guide.
Dr. Rich said the recent “tech-lash” (like “backlash” but against technology) with Silicon Valley executives forbidding their own children from using the tools they’ve invented is both impractical and not based on evidence. Instead, he offers 10 simple “pro tips” that will help parents safeguard the digital wellness of their little ones:
1) Content matters
What’s on the screen matters more than the screen itself. Dr. Rich says many companies make inaccurate claims that what they’re presenting to children is “educational.” But he said there are also children’s media companies — including PBS, Noggin, and Sesame Workshop — that create research-backed games, interactive videos, and other content. Parents should look for engaging, interactive, knowledge-building content.
2) Context matters
Parents should be aware of how their kids are using screens and for how long. He says screens allow for communication but not thinking and problem solving. That is, a child can talk with his preschool teacher on video chat, but he can only figure out how to balance blocks by building a big tower off screen. Short periods with screens followed by breaks for off-screen time is best for kids (and their grown-ups).
3) Think of screens as “power tools”
Dr. Rich said screens during the pandemic are really the only “conduit to the outside world” for children (and adults). Screens can be part of preschool programs or the best way to have dinner with Grandma and Grandpa. “Screens give them great power but also there are also potential pitfalls; children can start to start to learn to use them mindfully rather than just as a playground.”
4) Work with your child to make screen-time rules
“Sit down with your child, when their screens aren’t around, and plan the day and prioritize what they want to do, including screen time,” Dr. Rich advises. “That does a couple things: One is it helps to remind them that they have diverse interests. It reminds them they have a finite amount of time, and that they need to budget and manage that time and that they can do it with you. It also creates endpoints. It allows the child to learn to value his or her time and attention. It also allows the child to have ownership in the rules rather than the parent laying it down from on high.” Parents can include children in this sort of planning early — by the time children are 3 or 4 years old.
5) Be flexible
Some best practices in digital wellness — like not bringing your smartphone to the dinner table — might not make sense right now. So, be flexible. If you can “bring family together” by video chatting at dinner, that’s a win! Keep an open mind about how screens can be used to improve health and build connections.
6) Keep on-screen kids in public spaces
Even if you can’t be fully attentive all the time, you should always be near your child when he or she is on screen in case he or she needs help or stumbles into content that is scary or confusing.
7) Engage with media together
Use media actively with your preschooler. Point to objects on screen and name them — just as you’d do if you were taking a walk together through your neighborhood. Ask your child questions about what he or she sees. Find media that interest your child and use them as a way to take a deep dive into his or her interests. Lots of scientific research supports the idea that parents’ active partnership boosts kids’ learning.
8) Don’t forget the importance of play and read aloud
Preschoolers primarily learn through their time with you: reading stories, playing games, and talking with each other. So prioritize those activities, whether you’re spending time together reading a printed book or an e-book.
9) Set a good example for your mini me
Your child is watching you, so lead by example. Show him how to use media with purpose to learn and engage — rather than to sit back and tune out.
10) Keep calm! The kids will be okay!
Dr. Rich reminds parents that “screens are not inherently toxic — it’swhat we do with them.” He notes children are “amazingly resilient” and parents aren’t going to “wreck” kids with screen time during this global health crisis: “Don’t put the energy into guilt that you can put into having some fun with your kids.”
Read the full Boston Children’s Hospital’s Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) Family Digital Wellness Guide — which has handy tips for parents of infants and toddlers, preschoolers, school aged children, tweens, and teens — here.