When you go online nowadays, you’d see a lot of articles on experts talking about screentime. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), one of the resources many parents go to, recommends no screentime for children younger than 18 months (with the exception of video chatting), and for 18-24 months of age, adults must watch it with the children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
According to them, “too much media use can mean that children don’t have enough time during the day to play, study, talk, or sleep.”
When I was pregnant, my husband and I agreed to raise baby P without depending on screentime, and apart from the things mentioned by the AAP above, I’m sharing our reasons why we avoid screentime as much as possible.
Just a little disclaimer: As of writing, baby P is 15 months old and has not depended on screentime to this day. We do not use it as a pacifier, there are no apps on our phones for him, and we don’t have a ritual of watching particular shows with him. However, maybe on two or three occasions, we did show him videos of cats purring (as in we just looked for videos of actual cats on YouTube) because he’s just so into cats. Also, he sees us use our phones and would sometimes see what we’re looking at. We allow him to explore our phones when he gets it from us, but have learned to put it in lock mode. That way, after a few clicks, all he sees is that page asking you for the password. We feel that this way, his curiosity to explore is answered, but he soon learns that’s all he can do with the phone then moves on. Lastly, we do use the phone with baby P to chat with our family abroad, or my mom.
A little more update: P is now 2 years old, and we do allow him to borrow our phones, but not for apps (we don’t have apps for him) – he likes going to the “flower”, that photo icon of apple phones. He goes to the flower to view his photos and videos, and photos and videos of his older cousin. This is the most “screentime” he gets, and not for a long time definitely.
Most recent update: A little before he turned 3, I learned about Mister Rogers. I watched documentaries about him, listened to his songs, and watched his videos. My son now watches Mister Rogers (and sometimes a cartoon show made by the company he left behind — Daniel Tiger), and we love them. We love watching Mister Rogers together, and learn about so many things and people from his show. If you are looking at what shows you can show your child, I highly recommend him. (Note: he passed away a long time ago, so this is an old show – and very slow)! We allow our son to watch up to 3 episodes a day. This is the screentime I don’t feel guilty of at all.
Moving on, these reasons are a mix of my observations and studies I have read about (in no particular order).
- It takes away the opportunity for the child to observe his/her environment. We always get comments about how baby P is so focused, or so interested in everyday things – in real life, basically. To be honest, this is the normal for us since he is an only son, and truthfully speaking, we don’t go around looking at other babies and comparing each one of them. But after thinking hard about it, we feel that he can focus for a long time and is very curious about everyday objects because that’s the natural (or typical) development of a child, if given a chance. Learning about the world is how they make sense of it, and this learning is a natural process they go through. However, things like screentime can hinder this progress, because the child tends to focus on the screen than the world around him/her. I feel like our son easily picked up what we do at home without actual teaching (like wiping the table after eating, wiping the floor when liquid spills, using a broom to clean our mess, etc) because he has no distraction. Screentime can easily distract a child from observing the world around him/her. I feel it’s unfair to expect a child to do certain things and tasks when they reach a certain age when we don’t give them a distraction-free opportunity to observe, learn, and do. Children need time to perfect their skills (like us adults, too). They can’t just clean the floor perfectly overnight. It’s a skill they learn through observation and repetition. If they are given screentime all the time, this window to learn is lost. You know what’s more? Do you know how a child learns to talk? There is one very important thing they need to see to be able to develop language: our mouths! To be able to replicate what we tell them, they need to see our mouths move. Their observation of how we make every syllable work is very important (that’s why we are often advised to talk slowly to a child to help him/her grasp our language better, just like how we would talk to a foreigner, or how a foreigner talks to us when we want to understand each other better). Have you ever noticed an infant of about four months staring intently at your mouth while you talk? That’s because infants begin to learn language by looking at how we pronounce our words. Screentime takes out this opportunity. And it’s not only language, let me share with you what Psychologist Andre Trindade said in the documentary “The Beginning of Life”:
“Many good and advantageous things come and will keep coming from the virtual world. But what is happening now? A loss in observation and eye contact and a loss in the child’s direct contact with things. A baby who sits at the table with their parents and a tablet won’t observe how people eat, he won’t observe how people talk, he won’t observe how pleasant that moment is for people. So it’s a very significant loss.”
- Screentime limits a child’s learning. While we adults use eyes as our dominant sense, children use all their senses to learn about the world. I’m sure you have noticed children eating everything they get hold of. This is one of the many ways they learn. My 4-year-old nephew loves smelling things, and he remembers things by smelling them. One time, I took out my Virgin Coconut Oil and he went up to me and said, “Oh! That’s coconut oil.”. Another time, while at a museum, he went to an herb section and told his parents, “That’s rosemary!”. Touch, hearing, and smell are as important to them as eyesight. When they learn about oranges and apples from gagdet apps instead of actual oranges and apples, they will not get to feel nor smell them, or thoroughly study their size or shape differences. An apple and an orange would have the same texture from an app, and I feel much is lost when children learn this way. I think Raffi Cavoukian (Founder of Centre for Child Honouring) said it best (also from the documentary The Beginning of Life):
“Children in their early years are meant to bond with nature, to have the wonder and the magic of the three-dimensional world imprinted in their hearts and minds. No computer screen will give you a gentle summer breeze. It’s not possible. No scent of spring will come from the screen. No touch that really moves you will come from the artificial representations of the world. Learning in the real world is primary to a positive, formative experience.”
- Screentime = time away from movement (which is important to learning). This is similar to my previous point, but let me expound. While they can easily manipulate gadgets (see how a child can easily manage to work his/her way around a new phone??? much faster than we can, to be honest!), it will not give them the manipulation they need to learn concepts better as they are only using the same finger or fingers to control different things. When you open a box in an app, you may need to slide up. But this is not how you open a box in real life. Similarly, when you cut an orange or an apple (think Fruit Ninja), you’ll also need to slide your hands up or down, or sideways. You use the same muscles for every single thing, when really, in real life, you will need different muscles to do different things. In real life, there are lots of opportunities to practice the three-finger grip (which is helpful for writing later on), but with gadgets, the chance to practice this is virtually non-existent. When children use their hands to feel, touch, and do, they get a very concrete understanding of what they are learning about.
As Maria Montessori said (from her book The Absorbent Mind), “The skill of man’s hand is bound up with the development of the mind, and in the light of history, we see it connected with the development of civilization. Every great epoch of civilization has left its typical artifacts. In India, there was a craftmanship so refined that it can hardly be imitated at present day. The development of manual skill keeps pace with mental development. Certainly, the more delicate the work, the more it needs the care and attention of an intelligent mind to guide it. For if men had only used speech to communicate their thought, if their wisdom had been expressed in words alone, no traces would remain of the past generation. It is thanks to the hand, the companion of the mind, that civilization has arisen. The hands, therefore, are connected with mental life. We may put it like this: the child’s intelligence can develop to a certain level without the help of his hand. But if it develops with his hand, then the level it reaches is higher, and the child’s character is stronger.”
In connection to her last line (after reading the rest of her text), my interpretation here is that they are stronger because they are more confident about their skills – they do not feel helpless and actually feel empowered to be able to do things! Screentime, for many children, seem to replace time for movement – both for gross motor and fine motor skills. It also replaces time for actual outdoor play, or imaginative play. Is it a coincidence that there are many children who are going through developmental delays nowadays? Maybe, or maybe not. But this is something that I feel is worth considering and thinking about.
- Our gadgets’ blue light is thought to be harmful for our eyes. According to this article, a number of studies have shown that the blue light suppresses melatonin—a hormone that helps the body maintain healthy circadian rhythms. Apart from that, some doctors worry that exposure to blue light from electronic devices may have a negative impact on our eyes. “Blue light is concerning because the cornea and the lens don’t filter it out, so it goes right to the back of the eye,” says Anam Qureshi, MD, clinical assistant professor of ophthalmology at NYU Langone in New York City. She says some experts think it might damage the retina and lead to conditions like macular degeneration—though there isn’t any research to back up those concerns. We feel it ourselves, don’t we? When we stare at the screen for long periods, I assume many of us feel the strain. My eyes feel tired, while some people get headaches. Eye experts themselves suggest that our eyes really need rest. Imagine what it can do to a child who is only starting to really develop his/her eyesight. Is it a coincidence that the number of children wearing eyeglasses at a very young age seems to be growing at a larger number these days? This is just my personal observation, most especially after talking to elders. This may or may not be the case, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a study actually backs this up. [Edit: 02/26/2018 – I just came from our son’s ophthalmologist, and he mentioned one bad effect of too much gadgets: it trains your eyes to focus only on short distances, which I guess limits your eyes from reaching their full potential.]
- Screentime easily becomes a pacifier. I know how tempting this is! And how easy it is to fall into this – because really, you can leave your children with a gadget and be able to do things and work. I know that sometimes, this really seems needed, especially when you’re all alone with your child and you have chores to finish, or other work to do. Personally, I am scared to even start this – because I know how it can be addicting for me (Imagine, I can blog more or make videos, or work more for our travel agency? Or get more sleep and rest!), and similarly, it can be addicting for P (which could sadly even alter his behavior later on). I know it will not do both of us any good in the long run. Screentime is addicting (it rewires your brain and is after all, dubbed the digital heroin) , and freedom from your child so you can do other things can be liberating, so leaving them to their gadgets can be addicting for us, too. Whenever I feel tempted to even try this out, I always think: What did my parents (or yaya/ nanny) do when I was a child? Surely, we dint have gadgets back then. And then, I also always keep in mind: there must be a reason Steve Jobs and other people from the tech world actually limit their own children’s gadget use (and send them to Waldorf schools). I admit, this is a tough one, but thankfully, it’s been 15 months of me holding it off for me and my son.
- Radiation. I am really paranoid about this. I feel like there’s no escaping — we have internet everywhere, phones everywhere. Having a gadget very near you (like what happens to us when we hold our phones near our heads) can be dangerous to our brains, most especially for brains that are still developing, like our child’s. When P gets my phone to pretend that he is calling his Lola, I try to get it from him first to put it on airline mode, and to put the screen on nightlight. I’m not sure what I do helps, but I surely hope it does.
- Gadgets contribute to an unhealthy posture. Have you ever heard of text neck? It’s a term used nowadays for the pain you feel in your neck (or even back) from looking down (probably too much) on your phone. It is real (I found out about it from people we actually know who have it). According to this article, cell phone use can double or triple the weight of your head and can strain your neck. It can then lead to neck, upper back, shoulder, and even arm pain. Just tonight, someone commented on how P has such a straight back. Personally, I attribute it to his freedom of movement and absence of screentime.
- Last, but not the least…I feel like screentime is used because adults think children are bored. Children, by nature do not get bored (read about it HERE). The world is our classroom, and as little humans who are just learning about the world, there are just so many things to be curious and interested about. However, screentime often makes the digital world exciting (fast and precise, just like an action movie!), and in effect, can make real life slow and “boring”. Infant expert and RIE founder Magda Gerber was so right when she said that babies don’t get bored unless parents have conditioned them to require external stimulation and entertainment. Let me just add: often, adults say they use screentime to address the child’s boredom, but really, boredom is an adult concept that is created and introduced to the child the moment we rely on screentime. There are a lot of articles backed up by studies saying that really, less is more. Children don’t need a lot of toys, for like they always say, necessity is the mother of invention. Give them lots of options and their brains will only freeze (I learned this from my favorite show: Brain Games). When you go in a huge store and every item they sell is out, with loud music playing, random categories and too many colors and things, is it easy for you to shop and pick an item you want? How about when you are shopping online or in a store and you are only presented with a few items? Isn’t the second option a more pleasant way to shop? The same effect happens to our children. Present them with too many things (this is essentially what often happens with the usual screentime choices – too many things going on — lots of moving things, lots of singing in the background, then things to press on the foreground, plus somebody talking and laughing, etc) and it’s hard for them to focus. But leave them with just a toy or two, and you can see their concentration and imagination flourish.
So there. These are my thoughts as a product of research, reading, and observation. I may still add a few things later on (I know I stored some articles in connection with this somewhere, but have to find them), but for now, I hope this was a useful/helpful read for you. If you ever reached this post because you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, thank you for your support. I would appreciate if you can drop by here, too, to share your thoughts on the topic. If there’s anything you’d like to add, please feel free to do so.
Bottomline for me is, I know the value of screentime and technology. I appreciate it and I love how things just get more exciting when it’s in video form (like this one– one of my favorite animations to date!), or app form, even! Plus really, I have learned a lot of things just by being online. I learned about Maria Montessori herself from other parents who believe in her (parents I never would have met had I not gone online). So, no, I am not totally against it, but I feel that for a growing child, just like everything in Montessori, they have to learn the basics first: what things are and how they work are best learned through actual experience. However, when baby P is older and I feel that he is ready, we are also open to introducing it. Maybe we can even do movie nights from time to time! For now, more of real life and real experiences it is for our family.