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How to raise kids in the digital age: three ways to use screentime in a good way

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Give your kid a tablet and they are as good as gold. Or is that too simple?

It’s so convenient to let your little ones watch a movie, while you’re making an undisturbed phone call or preparing food. But it feels uneasy, too, letting them stare at a screen hypnotized, instead of playing with bricks or drawing crayon on the walls. What’s the long term effect of all these screens on small kids?

Only during the weekend

In a significant article in the New York Times from a few years ago, journalist Nick Bilton is surprised about CEO’s from tech companies who allow their own kids little screentime. When Steve Jobs’s kids were little, they couldn’t use the iPad during the week, and only half an hour during the weekend.

Other ‘tech-parents’ are just as strict. Why? They know the dangers technology can bring first hand and they don’t want their kids to fall prey to the addicting effect of it. ‘I know from my own experience what it’s like, I don’t want it to happen to my kids too,’ says one of them.

Habit

In the book ‘Irresistible’, Adam Alter explores the matter in depth. Screens (not just iPads, TV’s too) are convenient for parents, he writes, but you don’t want to teach your kids a habit at a young age that’s hard to get rid of when they’re older.

He writes that in America, some people advocate no screen time at all for kids under two years old – no TV, no iPads, no smartphones. In this early age, the brain develops superfast and kids’ learning abilities are most stimulated by being in contact with people, not screens – according to AAP, an American association of pediaetricians.

Should we get rid of all screens when our kids are young? That’s a bit extreme. But according to Alter, these three tips might help to handle screens responsibly.

1 Make sure there’s a connection to the ‘real’ world

Encourage your child to apply the things they learn on screen, in the real world. If your preschooler likes to play a game with balls and bricks on the tablet, make sure they play with real balls and blocks too. Do they like to watch dogs on YouTube? Point out the different dogs in the street. If your kid is learning to distinguish colors in a digital game, identify the colors together while sorting out laundry of playing with bricks.

2. Choose ‘active’ instead of ‘passive’

Pick games and tv shows that are interactive. In Sesame Street the pace is low and your kid can really join in, but a show like Spongebob is far too ambitious (in both pace and content) for any kid under five, Alter estimates.

Another tip: don’t leave the TV on in the background, like moving wallpaper, but look consciously – preferably together with your kid, so you can explain to them what they’re looking at.

3 Focus on the story, not the technique

Sure, games that involve hitting a screen and colors moving around are great, but it’s wise to pick apps that evolve around a story instead. They resemble picture books.

In the end, one thing is essential: all of this is difficult when mom and dad are absorbed by screens all day. The best thing is probably to close off the screens yourself every once in a while. If you don’t have to worry about sand or water on your phone, you can play with them in the sandbox or stamp your feet in a puddle. Cooking together might be a little less efficient, but it’s a great opportunity for a chat. That’s how you replace screen time by we-time, and no app can compete with that.

Want to read more?

Adam Alter, ‘Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked’.

Text: Anne Wesseling - Photo: Igor Starkov