Many gentle parents also follow the practise of no screen time (yes, you read that correctly!) or limiting screen time for their children and / or themselves. There are many lifestyle factors that can make this a huge challenge for some families. However, it’s worth educating ourselves on the recommendations and reasons for those recommendations, to help us be mindful when resorting to screen time for our children.
We have by no means transitioned to no screen time, so this post is not aimed at parents considering no television. We run a business from home and have a busy website to maintain, stock to order electronically, along with being contactable for customer enquiries. We also have 3 very young children (3.5 year old and nearly 2 year old twins) with no local support network. However, since the World Health Organisation (WHO) in April 2019 recommended no screen time for children under 2, and less than 1 hour for children aged between 2 and 5, we started being mindful of our TV use. I will be honest – it is incredibly hard at times, and sometimes we feel too overwhelmed and still resort to TV.
Challenges To Consider When Limiting Screen Time
Number and Ages of Children
As mentioned above, we have 3 children aged 3 and under. Nap times vary wildly, even when attempting the same times each day. How do you safely keep 2 other young children quietly and calmly in another room while you put another to bed? I have tried many ways – leaving the other two in the garden usually leads to crying within a few minutes, disrupting the naptime process for the third child. I’ve tried pulling out exciting toys they haven’t used in a while – which resorted in ‘My Turn’ screaming within a few minutes. Food – doesn’t last long enough. Books – they can’t read themselves yet so they don’t last a minute. Colouring and painting is not an option as the nearly 2 year old uses it on the walls etc (plus arguments pan out as well!).
What I have concluded is that, wonderful as play is, it is so important with young children to be supervised or emotions can get heightened quickly. If it’s not possible to supervise, then the only tool I’ve found keeps them sat like zombies quietly and happily together … is TV.
Other Family Abilities
My husband fully supports our gentle parenting choices. However he struggles with the use of words required, or in how to follow through with boundaries. He’s a gentle parent in progress and I’m confident he’ll get there. At this stage, he needs a lot of mentoring from me with what to say instead of reacting or being permissive. He is usually physically home when I start the bedtime routine with one of the twins. That leaves him supervising our 3.5 year old and 23 month old. He does not enjoy reading. Any play tends to end up loud which can be a challenge getting the other toddler to sleep. He worries about using his guitar to entertain them as he fears they will break it. He usually resorts to TV as well.
Research Supporting Limited Screen Time
So if it’s a challenge, and if it keeps our kids sat quietly and peacefully for a while, why should we consider limiting TV time? Some studies have found that even the parent using smartphones and TVs can impact upon young children’s emotional wellbeing and delay language development (see this research paper from April 2019). Another paper from August 2018 suggests that there may be a default to a parent or caregiver withdrawing from the relationship through the use of technology (see the research paper here). To be honest, when all 3 of my children are screaming and sitting with their sad emotions, my brain screams at me to just put the TV on to make it all stop. I am also aware that will not allow their emotions to be fully supported or expressed… but the desire is truly there. Even some findings have been that screen time is so much part of our culture that the recommendations for older children can be ‘virutally impossible’ (see this article for the research completed in Australia). A sample of undergraduate students found that limiting social media time to less than 30 minutes per day significantly improved well-being (see further details on this link).
Personal Experience Of Excessive Screen Time
When my eldest was born, I felt fairly lonely and felt TV was as close as it came to company. I personally was raised in a household full of technology, with the TV playing most of the time. I did not imagine watching TV or working on the laptop / computer frequently would do any harm to my child. I could not handle watching baby programs – I found the language irritating e.g. ‘eh-oh’ from Teletubies, I just felt why can they not say ‘hello!’?! That may just be me. I did however put on TV for my own personal sanity, or sit and work on the computer while my daughter kicked around on the floor or slept.
When the twins were born, I felt so bad for my eldest daughter as my time was split between 3 babies’ needs now, and it felt like she was usually last on the list. A doctor at the hospital made me feel my daughter had been missing out. When she cried while he did some tests on me – he started singing the In the Night Garden theme tune to her. She continued screaming as she did not know the song. He started singing other well-known kids songs. She didn’t have a clue what he was on about. I decided to change the TV to children’s programs as it kept her peaceful while the 2 babies bounced between me. So we watched a lot of In the Night Garden etc.
My daughter was not even talking yet, and it was only when a controversial story came up on a program that I began to question what I was doing. I want to be the one to educate her about controversial topics. It should be me who educates her about differences and similarities. I don’t want someone on TV to decide when and how she learns about important and sensitive topics. I was unprepared. Right now, fast forwarding nearly 2 years, this story would be fairly suitable for my child who has an awareness of words and others’ differences. At the age of 20-odd months, she was definitely not ready to learn what this story was aiming to communicate.
Besides the TV children’s programs, I turned to films instead. I have fond memories of Disney movies from when I was younger. I found that an easy tool – put Aladdin on and that occupies your child for a good long while! However, actually some of the scenes are frightening to a 2 year old! They seem a bit violent in parts too. I was trying to explain to my toddler that we don’t hit others and then the main characters in the Disney films were hittings others… I’m sure I saw a rise in my child’s aggressive behaviours after watching Disney films.
My daughter had been struggling with bedtimes, screaming the house down daily, when we watched all of this TV. Only when we cut it out did we realise the impact it was having on her. She was physically turning into a couch potato too and that was contributing to my Mum guilt. I felt like my daughter was sat all day self comforting and switching off her mind to the TV presented in front of her.
As a result of the above scenarios, I realised I needed to be in control of what my young children learnt and when. I wanted them to learn in an age appropriate, healthy and constructive way at the best time for them.
When Using TV Now
As mentioned above, both my husband and I do still use TV at one or another child’s bedtimes to keep the other child/ren in one spot. The WHO screen time recommendation above also includes recommendations about the importance of child’s sleep under the age of 5. Without the TV, it can hugely impact on one or more of our children’s bedtimes and getting them to settle. When using TV now though, we restrict the programs they are allowed to watch. Some gentler themed programs our kids enjoy are:
- Daniel Tiger – this is about a toddler tiger who has a baby tiger sister. Their very gentle Mummy and Daddy care kindly for them. The TV series encourages the baby tiger to express his emotions about the challenges involved when being a big brother, options for how to express these emotions healthily e.g. a song along the lines of “when you feel you’re about to ROAR, take a deep breath and count to 4… 1, 2, 3, 4…”. These catchy songs are enjoyed by my eldest daughter, and being obsessed with babies, she loves the program.
- Sesame Street – I personally like this. My kids don’t particularly at the moment, but we’ve had a few of them on. It’s quite educational so goes through different letters of the alphabet with them or new words.
- Barney – this is old but it’s full of classic songs and the kids in the show love dancing and singing. It seems very gentle in nature too. It introduces new concepts without making you feel they were favouring one type or another, for example.
- Little Bear – this is a new one for us which accidentally came up after one of the other shows we watched. It seems like a nice little family of bears and nothing we’ve seen so far hasn’t been gentle in nature.
- Winnie The Pooh – similar in nature to Little Bear, this has some educational parts to it too such as counting.
- Wildlife programs – Daddy likes watching fish programs with the girls while I take our son to bed. He makes up silly names for them or educates them about the different species they are watching. It also has relaxing music and is not that visually stimulating for a program, since it’s being watched close to their bedtime too.
Other Non Screen Based Activities
It’s all well and good talking about limiting screen time, but what can we offer all day instead of TV? The previous blog post about mischievous monkies includes fun ideas for entertainment, if you have the energy (see blog post here). Most importantly, it is essential for young children to have unstructured independently-led playtime. See the book by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate which explains the importance of child’s play for healthy development. You may also be interested in my previous post about setting up the best play environment for your children.
How Much TV Is Too Much?
The WHO recommends less than one hour screen time per day for the under 5’s and zero screen time for the under 2’s. Some days we achieve zero TV time, but most days we aim to just limit it as much as possible. I usually put the TV on for an average 30 minutes a day for my girls while I take our son to bed. My son only watches about 2 minutes before I take him for his nap. I turn the TV off shortly after he’s fallen asleep. In the evening before their bedtime, it may be on for another 1 hour on average. Our son is barely exposed to TV at all, but both our daughters probably have more than the recommended one hour per day. In writing this blog post, I have realised I could turn the TV off in the night once our son has fallen asleep too. That may limit their screen time to less than the one recommended hour per day once our youngest turns 2 next week.
Being Mindful About Technology
In our personal situation it does not seem feasible to completely cut out screen time yet. However, since reading the WHO’s recommendation last year, we have become conscious of the effects that excessive screen time could cause. We have tried limiting the TV just being left on in the background. I try reminding myself this is a temporary solution to a challenging situation. It will be possible to improve when the future sleeping arrangements become more manageable. As the kids grow older and drop naps or take themselves to bed, I feel we will be able to limit screen time even more.
As an extra bonus, most of our family’s screen time is in my absence, as I am putting a baby to sleep whilst it is on. I have found I have been able to produce a lot more work and create a lot more ideas without the background noise being there. I also feel less depressed, I guess because I’m not feeling like my kids are being lazy and we’re not doing anything. I see what joy they have from just being free to play together. Limiting my TV time has therefore had positive effects on me as well as on my kids.