Looking at the bigger picture: child development, parenting and screen time
A report out this week has revived an ongoing parenting debate: how much television (if any) should children be allowed to watch?
In a guest blog, psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer calls for an end to the demonization of parents who let their children watch TV - and asks us to look at the bigger picture in order to assess what's really best for children.
Parents are feeling increasingly stressed by an expanding list of things they should or shouldn’t be doing with their children - and the latest report advising that young children shouldn’t watch TV at all adds more fuel to the fire.
There is a huge amount of pressure on parents regarding the amount of screen time children are allowed. It’s really demoralising in the playground to listen to parents whose children are only allowed to watch half an hour of TV at weekends - and only educational programmes at that. It makes most parents feel inadequate, resentful guilty and cross; but is this justified?
I’ve been involved with the BBC and CBeebies production, and I firmly believe that limited amounts of age-appropriate TV can be good for children. The reports that demonise TV and screen time look only at one issue: the socio-cognitive development of that one child. This misses out on a range of other developmental opportunities - and completely ignores the needs of the rest of the family.
Of course, allowing children to sit in front of the computer or TV for hours on end isn’t healthy, but the benefits to the whole family of giving children some down time in front of good quality TV, where they’re not making a mess, and giving a harangued parent time to regroup or get the dinner on can outweigh any negative effects the TV may have.
I encourage my children to watch CBBC (CBeebies when they were younger) as there are no commercials and the content is age appropriate and engaging. I try to watch some programmes with them, so we can talk about the story lines and characters. I’m not against them watching some of the more commercial channels too, as I think it’s important for them to learn to make decisions and I want them to be media savvy. I balance screen time with active play, so if my children watch half an hour of TV or play on the computer, they might go and play in the garden for half an hour, or go to the park. It’s not rocket science - homework and chores get done first, but after that, if they want to watch TV or play on the computer, I tend to let them.
The surprising effect of this is that it’s not seen as a treat or forbidden fruit so they don’t crave it as much. They self-regulate to a certain extent, and although they might watch more TV than I’d like at some times, at others they will switch it off voluntarily and play instead. Children’s lives are being increasingly micro-managed by parents and this is hampering the development of some important skills, including decision-making, self-discipline/regulation, responsibility and self-reliance.
Isn’t it time we gave our children the chance to develop holistically? In today’s world that includes being au fait with technology, and able to make decisions and learn to live with the consequences. Play is the best vehicle for children to learn through - and balancing all the different types of play opportunities enables children to develop naturally, at their own pace
A healthy play diet is crucial – and if we provide parents with information on how different toys and play activities develop different skills, they’ll be able to choose toys and activities that will help their children engage in a range of activities and ensure that they get their five a day.
5 key points for the 5 a day play diet:
- Don't forbid TV or screen time– use it as down time for the children and breathing space for parents but make sure you have plenty of ideas for fun activities away from the screen too.
- Use creative play as an alternative down time activity - craft kits and projects are a great way to help children engage with something, especially if it can be left out and returned to several times.
- Identify times when it's ok to make a mess and build dens or get the Lego out all over the floor and encourage children to learn to tidy up after themselves by making it part of the game.
- Use active toys to prolong children's interest in energetic play – outdoor play if fantastic but children can play actively inside too.
- Mix and match playmates – siblings, grandparents, friends and so on will all prefer playing with different toys and games and this will naturally balance the diet.
Dr Amanda Gummer is a psychologist who specialises in play and child development, and the founder of the Good Toy Guide.