Is your child spending more time with her iPad?

How much is too much screen time?

Victoria Browne, 31, a nurse from the UK, mum to a two-year-old.

Nikki Gilks, 32, from Australia and mum to a six-month-old.

Vanessa Abernethy, 42, from New Zealand, mum to a two-year old and six-year-old.

There’s no doubt that kids are being exposed to more screen time than ever before, whether that be in the form of TVs, laptops, tablets or smartphones. But it’s also true that until the last decade, half of these screens didn’t exist at all; times are a-changing, and most parents are going to want to move along with them. While we all know that plonking a tot in front of the telly for days on end isn’t going to be good for them, we also know that mums have to cook dinner/go to the bathroom/ take a 10-minute break from time to time... and you know what? Sometimes the iPad comes in handy on those occasions. But how much screen time is too much, and how should we be responding to all the alarmist research out there? We dug out some of the latest findings on children and screen time and put them to our mums to ask what they thought and how it makes them feel…

The research claim:

Under threes should have no screen time at all

Under threes should be kept away from screens altogether, according to a review of the evidence in Archives Of Disease in Childhood. Review author Dr Aric Sigman said the first three years of life is a critical time for brain growth, and is when babies and small children need to interact with their parents, eye to eye, and not with a screen.

Mums’ reactions:

Victoria: I think it’s really difficult to have no screen time for your child. I am currently a stay-at-home mum of a toddler, and I would find it really hard to not allow my son, Alfie, to watch any TV at all. While I don’t think it is right for him, or any child, to be in front of a TV all day, I feel that a certain amount of screen time isn’t harming him. I let him watch programmes on CBeebies and he enjoys them. It allows me to get on with a few jobs, or we sit together and he has a bit of chill-out time. Some children’s programmes are educational and there is a wide variety of shows teaching him sign language, languages, the alphabet, numbers, etc. If I try to sit and teach him these things myself he isn’t interested, but when it’s presented in a different way he enjoys it. He used to watch BBC series In the Night Garden before bed and it used to make him sleepy, and we would then have a book and bed. I think it’s about moderation.

I also think this sort of recommendation is just another thing to make mums feel guilty. We all try to do the best for our children, but some advice just isn’t practical for day-to-day living. For me to give Alfie non-stop attention from the time he wakes up at 5.30am until the time he goes to bed at 7.30pm would be really difficult. Watching a couple of children’s programmes keeps him entertained and allows me some valuable time.

Vanessa: I was vigilant about screen time with my older child when he was younger and kept him away from the TV and iPad completely. However, it backfired. When he started school at the age of three, we were told that because he couldn’t navigate his way through an iPad, he was behind where he should be for his age range. They were concerned that he wasn’t able to turn an iPad on since they use them in class for learning, and they told us that safe use of technology needs to be taught to children from a very early age since it is the way the world now functions. So my approach with my daughter has been totally different. I’m still not one of those parents who will put my children in front of an iPad when we’re in a restaurant – when you’re having a family meal children should be involved in conversation. But there are lots of educational games and TV shows on the iPad, and at the age of two, my daughter can already turn on the iPad and navigate her way to some games by herself.

Nikki: I believe, with all things in life, if you stick to the motto: “Everything in moderation, and nothing to excess,” you’ll live a very balanced life. No screen time at all is very strict. I think if parents allow their under-threes a maximum of two hours screen time each day, it won’t cause their children any harm. This isn’t the 1980s! The world we live in today relies heavily on technology, and I think if a child isn’t exposed to screens at all, then they will be left behind once they reach school age. Parents also need to lead by example, since children inevitably copy what their role models do. I’m a stay-at-home mum, and my husband also works from home. We watch a maximum of one and a half hours of TV each day. My husband works on the computer for most of the day, but he’s also a very active person and exercises at the gym, as do I. Neither of us is glued to our devices. We don’t use Facebook/Twitter/Instagram, aren’t using our mobile phones 24/7 and only check emails occasionally.

The research claim:

Screens should never be used to calm children

Using a smartphone or tablet to pacify toddlers (on a plane, in a restaurant or to distract them from a tantrum) may impede their ability to learn self-regulation and be detrimental to “their social-emotional development”, according to 2015 research at Boston University School of Medicine.

Vanessa: I agree with this. I would never resort to using a screen to distract my child at home or when we’re out to eat – I would remove them from the restaurant if they were disruptive before doing that. However, my one exception is on planes. It’s a closed environment that you can’t remove them from, and I don’t think it’s fair to force other people to listen to my child screaming just because of my views on screen time. I think there’s room to be considerate to others, and a bit of time on the iPad as an exception to the rule isn’t going to make that much difference.

Victoria: I think there is a time and a place for letting toddlers use tablets. I will be taking an iPad with me on the seven-hour flight back to the UK and will be using it, along with toys and other activities, to try to make the journey more enjoyable for us both. Personally, I wouldn’t take an iPad to calm Alfie in a restaurant as I think it is important for him to learn that social skills are necessary in certain situations, but I completely understand why parents do use them. I’m that mum armed with toy cars that zoom across restaurants tripping up waiters hoping that Alfie is learning the importance of being able to sit down in an adult environment! I think it is naive to think that technology isn’t part of our society and it is certainly going to be part of our children’s future. By preventing our children from learning about technology we are going to be hindering their future. Again, it is about moderation and using it in an appropriate manner.

Nikki: My rule is no tablets or phones on at the breakfast or dinner table, or at a restaurant. I think that’s pretty rude. I want to teach my son to engage with the people he’s sitting at the table with.

The research claim:

It is possible to lessen the adverse impact of screen time

Professor Lynne Murray, research professor in developmental psychopathology at the University of Reading in the UK, said there is “well-established literature showing the adverse effects of screen experience on the cognitive development of children under three”, but that the adverse effects could be mitigated if the child was watching and interacting with “a supportive partner – usually adult”. Professor Blair of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in the UK, said there were some simple steps parents could take, “such as limiting toddler exposure as much as possible, keeping TVs and computers out of children’s bedrooms, restricting prolonged periods of screen time (we would recommend less than two hours a day) and choosing programmes that have an educational element”.

Victoria: I would agree with this statement. I think it is important that we limit time and monitor what is being viewed. The internet is a scary place and opens up children to viewing things that they really shouldn’t be seeing. The same with television; I wouldn’t want my child watching violent or sexual scenes and I think children having TVs in their bedroom makes it really difficult to stop this.

Vanessa: I agree with all of this. I don’t think I know any responsible parents who would just put their under-three-year-old in front of a screen without being there with them – that’s lazy parenting in my view. I always sit with my daughter when she is using the iPad and we do things together. Also, she doesn’t have the attention span to watch that much television on her own, so some of it is self-regulating anyway.

Nikki: The screen time that I do allow my six-month-old baby to see is only educational YouTube videos. The main playlist we watch is ABC Kids TV, which teaches the ABCs and phonics songs. I have him sit in a high chair watching the iPad, while I’m behind the screen cooking in the kitchen. I sing along to the music too. I like to think that he’s listening to all the sounds, as well as watching the words on the screen. Hopefully he’s absorbing the information and it’ll help him learn to talk. Perhaps reading a physical book to him would be a better alternative. Then again, why not do both?

He definitely will not be allowed to have a TV, phone or tablet in his bedroom.

Conflicting research on screen time for infants:

• In 2007, University of Washington researchers claimed that, among infants aged eight to 16 months, exposure to baby DVDs/videos such as Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby was strongly associated with lower scores on a standard language development test.

• In a 2013 Stetson University study that reanalysed this data, researchers found that a total abstinence of screen time in children between the age of six and 16 months was actually associated with lower cognitive and language development, not higher. Their reanalysis of the research showed that exposure to baby videos could be construed as positive, neutral, or negative depending upon how the statistics were analysed.

Vanessa: That’s pretty scary. But I think it depends on what the study is looking for – the research might find that there’s lower cognitive development after watching Baby Einstein, but it might have found they had a better appreciation of musicality, dance and movement; we are pretty musical in my family, and part of what I liked about Baby Einstein is its use of classical music. I think making blanket statements about this sort of thing can be dangerous.

Victoria: If the researchers aren’t sure what we should be doing how can we as mums know what is right or wrong?

Nikki: As a parent this makes me feel very confused. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

Is the screen time debate just another way to make parents feel guilty?

Associate professor at Stetson University, Christopher Ferguson, says, “The data [on screen time] is often complex and contradictory and even scholars debate these issues. Pressuring parents with total media abstinence, particularly with nonsense claims of damaged brains, isn’t good science. It’s just frightening and shaming parents.”

Victoria: I completely agree with this! In an ideal world our children would eat a pure, organic diet with meals lovingly cooked by parents, while living in a clean house... oh hold on... not clean, because if it is too clean we are stopping our children being exposed to small amounts of bacteria that will improve their immune system. They would be entertained all day with fun-but-educational activities as well as being taken outdoors for exercise and fresh air. While outside they would wear sunscreen, but hold on... no we should allow them to experience the sun without sun protection and just keep them in the shade for fear of chemicals in suntan lotion and them developing rickets. We can’t always do exactly what the researchers recommend because a) we are human beings and b) the researchers keep changing their minds on what we should and shouldn’t be doing!

Vanessa: I don’t think any of us should be judging one another on our parenting. I believed the negative research on screen time with my first child, and it backfired. I’m not an expert myself, but I believe that the teachers at my son’s school in Dubai are experts in child education, so I am willing to go along with their recommendation that kids [should] be taught to use technology from a young age. They say limiting screen time is the old way of raising kids, and that now it’s all about technology. I’ve purposefully introduced my two-year-old to tablets from a very early age because of this, and she is now far more interested in technology than my son, who is six. I also realise that I’m going to have to take more of an interest in technology myself if I am to responsibly guide my children in their use of it as they get older.

Nikki: Sometimes I do stop and think, ‘is screen time rotting my baby’s brain?’ But my husband tells me that that’s just silly. Which is true. Sure, if he was looking at a screen for eight hours a day, that would be another story. But if it’s limited to one to two hours per day, then that’s OK. I believe the best ‘toy’ a parent can give their child is themselves. Interaction and bonding between parent and child is so important; screens should not be used as a babysitter. The child also needs social interaction with other children and adults. I love getting out of the house and meeting up with other mums and babies. Also, I would prefer my son to play with physical toys, or do something creative like draw, or something active like swimming rather than playing computer games. These are the types of things I will encourage, more than screen time.

What the experts say

Non-profit group Zero To Three says that although children learn best through hands-on exploration, they can also learn through screen time. Here are some of its guidelines:

•  Make sure content is age appropriate. It should reflect your child’s experiences in the real world, provide a context that your child can relate to, be organised around everyday themes, and depict positive interactions between people and characters that serve as models for your child.

•  Ensure viewing time is limited (less than 90 minutes)

•  Choose screen time that’s as interactive as possible. Get involved yourself to help make the connection between what they see on the screen and the real world.

• Don’t allow background TV – numerous studies show that exposure to programming not designed for young children, even when in the background, negatively impacts language and cognitive development and executive functioning.

• Limit your own technology use, including mobile phones, when you are with your child. Research suggests that when parents are distracted by screens, it can lead to negative, attention-seeking child behaviours. www.zerotothree.org