If you haven't read or heard somewhere recently about the impacts of 'screen time' on our kids (and more specifically, toddlers) it's likely you've been living under a rock. Headline: the advice is everywhere. There has been a prolific amount of research done in the last 10 years around the effects that technology and screens have on kids, and the findings are fairly straightforward. They're also parroted in almost every parenting resource, guide book, and article you can find online. Chirpy parent reference articles give directions like 'Get outside!' and 'Do more crafts!', which if you're anything like me, you value but also quietly resent. In this house, we both work full time and have two children under 4 - we simply can't manage without the occasional incentive/distraction that an episode of Paw Patrol or Super Why provides, no matter how many painted footprint caterpillars and batches of homemade play dough we create.
The official suggestions from groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics include limiting kids under age 5 to one hour of screen time daily, watching with your child if possible (and discussing once the episode or movie is finished), and keeping babies under 1 year away from all sources of blue light if you hope to have them sleeping regularly at any point in time.
Not that the research or insights aren't valuable, but given the stay-at-home mandate we all lived through earlier this year, I think it's safe to assume that many families (like mine) have allowed for a gracious amount of screen time for our kids as a survival tactic over the last 6 months. Maybe its only an hour or less, but maybe its also 'just one more episode' so you can get that last email out. Understood, agreed, and validated: I'm right there with you, parents. But what about our own screen time habits, specifically related to our phones?
In Katie Penry, PsyD's 'The Parenting Toddlers Workbook', she asserts that "the things that truly matter for your child's growth are simple and achievable: your careful attention, your thoughtful reaction, and your appropriate responses. Isn't that good to know?" Okay, perfect: 3 things to remember, easy enough - we already do those much of the time anyway. Continuing...that said, "research* continues to unequivocally indicate that the overuse of screens BY PARENTS interrupts all (yes, all) of these things."
Sh*t. Hold my phone.
"The absolute imperative building block for all mental health, learning, and well-being (and without which a child is critically injured) is your attuned and appropriately responsive interactions with your child...your gaze is foundational for your toddler's well-being. When parents become frequently, immersively distracted, they begin to deprive their children of eye contact, a shared and appreciative gaze, a focused audience, and an appropriately responsive play partner. These things are critical for healthy development."
I read this section about 5 times yesterday, and when I was done, I sat back and pictured mealtimes, bath time, and even the occasional play session in our house where I had my phone in hand, checking one last message from work, pulling up a recipe to prep for dinner and getting distracted on Pinterest, or looking for the text message/photo I wanted to reference in a conversation later. I hadn't meant to be distracted or inattentive to our kids - I was simply busy, multitasking, and overwhelmed like almost every other parent I know. But I've been leaving my kid on read, literally and figuratively, because my phone was too engaging to look away from.
In that moment yesterday, I recommitted to an idea I had tried last spring when I was younger, more focused, and had 1 less child: the phone-jail-basket for grown ups. From today onward, we're going to place our cellphones in the basket whenever we're home together, and we'll try not to let cellphones distract us from the kids, because they're just too important. Even unwittingly, I can't be responsible for depriving them of the interaction they need when it's easy (and possible) for me not to. In our house, the text message/email/article can wait until 7pm, because the healthy development of our kids is our first priority. And then once they're down to sleep for the evening, we can do all of the above, plus binge watch Deadwood on TV. Because we're not totally insane, and everyone needs a distraction from the craze of life.