Professor Priya Driscoll | Screen Time and Young Children

Q: Why should screen time be limited to young children, and how?

With the pandemic, a lot of parents, educators, and community members who work with children ask about screen time. Perhaps you have had a household where there hasn’t been screen time allowed for children, and now all of a sudden, their school and even their sports are online. Your interactions with family and friends are on a computer screen, so that leaves a lot of questions. A lot of folks have to revisit their ideas about screen time and question: what do we do now, given the current situation? 

Q: What is screen time?

Screen time is not just one thing, it can be passive like watching TV, listening to music with the screen on, watching videos, etc. A lot of children, especially young ones, are engaged in longer screen time like playing games, browsing the internet, or completing lessons online. It can also be used for having conversations with family members, using social media, etc. 

Depending on the age of the child, screen time can be used for developing skills like creating movies, creating PowerPoint presentations, etc. Screen time is not just one monolithic issue. Parents and family members need to think hard about what kind of screen time their child may be using and what may be more or less appropriate depending on their age and activity. 

Q: What is the best amount of time that a child can be using the screen?

There are national organizations out there, the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Paediatrics, who have relatively stable guidelines that are mainly for young children (toddlers and preschoolers). As children get older, more of their time is spent online. The answer to your question is that it really depends. Not all screen time is created equal. 

You can have very engaged, interactive discussions and get-togethers with family members on the computer. You can play board games online with friends. It’s more about the content and use of the screens than whether or not there is a presence of screens. For the youngest toddlers and infants, really pay attention to what your child is doing with screens and what they’re doing without screens. What is the task of the child? A one-year-old child’s task is to be exploring the world. If they’re sitting passively in front of a screen, they’re not able to do that. Asking those questions will lead to better insight and better decision making rather than “one hour here” and “one hour there”.

Q: If this pandemic didn’t happen, is there a specific numerical value of the time you would suggest to follow? 

My recommendation would be to listen to updated suggestions from the World Health Organization or the American Academy of Paediatrics. Even these groups are expanding their suggestions to pay more attention to content. It’s not just one hour or less, it’s dividing that time between more active and interactive types of screen time and more passive uses of screen time. The recommendation would be to limit the use of passive screen time with very young children, choose more active versions whenever possible. Work on other skills like walking, crawling, playing peek-a-boo, and learning about who they are. Developmental stages have to be taken into account, for example, an older child could learn to code. 

Q: Do you advise discussing with your child what they have just watched on TV? Should parents come up with questions based on the episode?

Doing so can take screen time from the screen itself to the child’s world. It can involve you as a parent in that world, too. It shows care and interest in what your child is doing. Co-viewing between parents and children increases learning. If you’re engaged and involved, it helps your child develop narrative and story-telling strategies. Asking them questions about their favorite characters builds their imagination, and it also gives you a shared topic to talk about. Bring their characters into real life. If the character is a gardener, then plant some flowers. Bringing the screen into real life can lead to really enriching activities, especially when you’re home during the pandemic.

Q: How do parents set limits on the use of screen time for their children?

TV and media usage is not a one size fits all type of question. Every family is going to be different. More acceptance of these differences that families have, the better. One thing I recommend to families is to come up with a family strategy, what do you think is going to work for you considering the kinds of screens you use and activities you do. As you think about your family’s own screen time persona and philosophy, you can start developing practices. Given this, you can start dividing the time you think is acceptable. You can say 3 hours is acceptable, but in those 3 hours, I want to make sure most of those hours are spent interacting with other people or doing something that’s pretty active. Coming up with the number of hours that work for you and dividing those hours into different types of activities can help families develop a digital philosophy. 

You can tell your child, “we have 3 hours of screen time a day, and during that, we’ll play games, see family, etc.” Make it explicit, so the child knows what to expect. They can always be subject to revision if something doesn’t work out. We can relate this to nutrition; you might not get into the details of calories and micronutrients, but you can talk to children about food that’s healthy and food that’s “treat food”. You can see the same thing for the use of screens. 

Q: Can you elaborate on the different types of technology you mentioned? 

For young toddlers and preschoolers, when they’re learning from screen time, like learning languages, vocabulary, or about the world, they tend to learn more when what they’re watching is interactive. Either interact with the child personally, or it could be watching people or animal interactions. This really facilitates very young children’s learning. They need evidence that what they’re seeing on screen is interactive. Children will learn much more from that at younger ages than they would watch something passive. 

Q: How do we discuss mental health with more screen time, post-pandemic?

A lot of families are struggling right now with questions like “Why can’t I see my friends”, “Why am I at home, I used to be going to school”, “Why can’t I see grandma and grandpa”. These are real concerns that very, very young children have. Older children tend to talk about the pandemic at school or with teachers and family. But for very young children, they may be confused as to why everything is different now. It varies across families, it depends on how much topics like health and world events are already discussed with your children. I recommend focusing on the fact that these are ways to stay connected even when we can’t be outside. You can say things like “Right now, we are going to keep everybody really healthy, and what we’re doing to keep healthy is staying inside” or “I’m working here, and we can spend more time together at home now”, or “Now that we’re spending more time at home and we’re keeping each other healthy, this is how we’re going to communicate with grandma and grandpa, this is how we’re going to be doing school, so we can keep everyone protected”. Having a positive spin on it is helpful because children do worry, they see the world so differently than we do. Encouraging any conversations or questions is really important. For young children who are trying to figure out what feelings are, having some feeling charts or pictures could also be incredibly helpful.

Q: Any advice for parents regarding the pandemic, technology, education? Anything we need to work on?

I would like to emphasize that this is a great time for educational technology and for us to learn about how to respond to the pandemic and how we’re organizing our time at home. How can we develop educational technology that is interactive, that doesn’t encourage passive watching, that is going to be responsive to children’s developmental needs, and to be the type of technology that children are going to learn from more readily. 

Q: How can we get our kids more engaged with our activities without TVs and tablets? 

One thing we can do for very little children is bringing that fantasy world to reality. The things they see on their favorite shows can be recreated in real life. Gardening, ball games, etc. Using your imagination to make things on the screen real is a really great way to get your kid to engage. For older children, they can be interested in “how-to” videos. There are a lot of kids watching culinary videos, like making pasta and other foods. Start engaging in the kitchen to get the family involved as well. See their interests and values on the screen as a bridge to the activity in the real world.  

About Dr. Priya Driscoll

Professor Priya Driscoll teaches at Mills College and serves as the director of early childhood education there. Professor Driscoll’s research uses mixed-method designs to examine cognitive and linguistic development in young children. She is interested in Communicative, social, and cognitive development in a diversity of learning environments; translating early childhood research into practice; and the role of culture and experience in children’s attention and learning. At ROYBI, Prof. Driscoll advises us on teaching methodology and pedagogy.