The lure of screens is often too hard to deny, especially if you’re a busy parent. Let’s face it: haven’t we all used technology as an electric babysitter of sorts? Most of us would sheepishly admit it. In this era of the 24-hour news cycle, as well as the pressure to convey one’s thoughts in 140 characters or less, it’s no surprise that screens are prevalent in all aspects of our daily lives. The problem is, however, that this form of “entertainment” is not what so many of us want for our kids. While we struggle to think of ways to keep our children active without a technological crutch, we often find ourselves grasping at straws because we’ve become so used to getting our parenting support through digital means.
The fear of one’s children becoming unfocused, zombie-like automatons is common among parents raising their kids in this digital age. Study after study points to the short and long-term effects of too much screen time on impressionable minds. Too many screens in the lives of our kids is a reality that many parents have to confront.
According to the Canadian Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines, children between five and 17 should not spend more than two hours per day on recreational screen time, yet the same report indicates that a third of Canadian kids are sleep deprived as a result of too much time spent in front of a screen.
Dr. Jasjit Sangha, a Toronto-based professor and mother of two teenagers, knows this struggle first-hand. Her daughter Simran, 16, is like most teens, very familiar with all things digital. Jasjit finds the battle between digital and non-digital entertainment an ongoing one.
“It’s a constant challenge – especially as my kids are teens now,” she explains. “I try to create screen-free times as much as I can, and teach my children how to engage with and be mindful of the world around them. But it is a challenge as many of their peers are allowed more screen time than them, so I have to constantly explain why I think it is important to limit screen time.”
Though she doesn’t deny that raising digitally savvy kids keeps her on her toes, Jasjit actively maintains a few constants regarding how and when her children engage through virtual means.
“I don’t have particular rules in terms of hours as this would be hard to enforce with teenagers, but we shut the wi-fi off at a set time in the evenings, have limits on computer usage and the kids know they can have some screen time after school, but they also have to allocate time for homework, extra curricular activities and screen-free family time,” she explains.
And with the latter – “screen-free family time” – she’s a strong proponent of allowing her children to make their own entertainment.
“My kids are teens, so much more self-directed,” says Jasjit. “But I do encourage them to play music, be active, be creative, and spend time outside in nature,” she says. It’s all about balance in their home.
With the rise in society’s comfort with all things digital, what used to be standard fare when it came to play is no longer the case. “Go play!” or “Find something to do” in response to children complaining of boredom takes on a whole other set of proportions for most parents today.
Ask Shannon Harris. The mother of three children, David, 5, Peter, 7, and daughter, Marilee, 15, Shannon has struck a fine balance between both conventional and digital play. When the right moment strikes, it’s anybody’s guess which type of entertainment will suffice. A proponent of both group and individual play, Shannon is not afraid to “kick it old school” – and get into the proverbial trenches with her kids when the time is right.
In spite of the ubiquitous nature of screens, Shannon is able to still get her kids to engage in play with her – no small feat during a time when many children would much rather get their kicks through the ether.
Her secret? She simply asks, and is always pleasantly surprised to find that they want to engage, with their mother, no less.
“Basically, I just invite them. It feels like kids just want to PLAY. Whether it’s a puzzle, a card game, or Minecraft (we each go into Minecraft PE via separate devices), as long as I invite them, they seem to be happy for the attention.”
Though she lets her kids enjoy screen time perhaps more than she’d like to admit, she’s doing something right because, at the end of the day, her kids’ form of play includes many non-digital activities.
Make Your Own Screen Time Rules
“I don’t have any rules about screen time, other than not having any TV before school,” she says. After school and while dinner is being prepared, it’s screen time if the kids request it, but “as soon as dinner is ready,” she says, “we all sit at the table, in the kitchen – together. We laugh to the point of tears at least twice a week. When the weather is nice, we all walk the dogs after dinner either on bikes or scooters. With or without Pokemon Go.”
It’s all about balance and finding the time to do the things are important – while also letting the kids indulge in screen time – within reason.
“I am comfortable with the screen time they get,” she explains. “My house is small and all our screen time is TOGETHER. Even my teen, when she is binge-watching whatever she watches, is sitting on the couch with us. That usually means she has one of her little brothers snuggled up on her.” So digital time is also family time in the Harris household. The two are not mutually exclusive.
When the screens are off, convention takes over and old school play is in order. The key to getting the kids to become engaged in the play process is to do it with them, Shannon says.
“We play with Play Doh. We stack dominoes as far as we can. We also stacked video tapes, DVDs and books once. Lego… Mega Blocks… The garage is full of sticks and balls, so there is always a sport to play out front.”
As she says, she “does” play with her kids. It’s all about the “doing.”
“And we ‘DO:’ Bubbles, chalk, bikes, cards, colouring, drawing, Jenga, board games, water tables, water ‘paint’, snow forts, raking leaves, lots of chores – they help with a LOT around the house. I’m broke, so we don’t DO much, but we’re always doing something. The point is, we all seem to do everything together.”
So there it is: “Play” is not an either/or proposition. An equal amount of digital/screen-based technology in keeping with more traditional ways of being entertained seems to be a reasonable balance for most kids today – and for their parents as well. So next time your child wants to play the latest video game or watch the latest YouTuber online, don’t say “no,” watch with them then engage with them the old-fashioned way. Checkers, anyone?
What types of video games is your child playing?
Make sure to check out whether they’re age-appropriate before you give the green-light for video play. Various online sources such as Common Sense Media can help you decide. Here’s a defi nition of the ratings:
Samantha Kemp-Jackson is a parenting writer, blogger and mother of four based in Toronto. Visit her blog at multiplemayhemmamma.com.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Nov/Dec 2016.