Screen time

Now that I’ve got some down time I can finally write some of the blog posts that I’ve had stored up for ages. Today’s post is all about screen time: what we do, and why. This post will soon be followed up by a detailed account of all of the specific children’s programmes and DVDs that have been popular in our house, and what should be encouraged if the adults in the house want to avoid being sent crazy by annoying characters, theme tunes, and learned behaviour.

Let’s not fool ourselves: ample research has confirmed that there is no benefit to children under the age of two having any screen time (i.e., watching TV or DVDs, or using an iPad or similar tablet). And recommendations in pretty much all countries that are minded to care about such things advise that pre-schoolers should have no more than an hour of screen time a day. The general gist of the advice seems to be that, for under-twos, programmes move too fast and things are too confusing to be of any benefit at all and, for older pre-schoolers, time spent watching TV is time that isn’t being spent running around, engaging in imaginative play, interacting with adults, or doing any of the other things that are good for children of this age.

I certainly don’t dispute the research, and I know of at least two families who have managed to raise their young children without any exposure to TV: one family with a three and a half year old singleton, and the other family with twins who are nearly two. I don’t know whether these children use Skype or iPads. Although I am undoubtedly filled with admiration for the parents in these two families, we’ve chosen to take a different approach. While we recognise that screen time does not necessarily provide much benefit (and I’m deliberately using the term ‘much benefit’ instead of ‘no benefit’, for reasons that I’ll explain later in this post), we’ve pretty much set aside the whole ‘benefit’ thing in favour of considering whether watching suitably vetted, age-appropriate TV does kids any actual harm.

What screens?

We don’t allow Hattie and Joe to play with iPads or phones. Joe was briefly obsessed with phones when he was around a year old, but he outgrew it (and we discouraged him getting near them), and I don’t really see any reason for them to use iPads. Also, I don’t want clumsy little kids dropping or damaging my devices, or inadvertently racking up vast App Store bills by upgrading a supposedly free app while I’m distracted. Hattie’s never been particularly interested in devices, so that makes life easier. So when I’m talking about screens throughout the rest of this blog post, I mean TV (or TV clips on YouTube). The kids do use Skype to talk to their France-based grandparents once a week, but it’s not a big factor in their lives.

A brief digression:

For the record, I’m completely sceptical of any claims that pre-teen children ‘need’ to use devices in order to be sufficiently skilled to properly utilise technology as they grow up. There’s a slowly growing trend in some New Zealand primary schools to require parents to supply their children with a personal device to use in class. If the school we’ve chosen for Hattie and Joe brought in that kind of policy we would seriously consider changing schools. I totally dispute the idea that primary school children need to use technology as an essential part of their learning experience: occasional access to the classroom computer should suffice. And technology is so intuitive these days that kids really don’t need a lead time of several years before they can use it effectively: it’ll take a 12 year old ten minutes to figure out everything. For the record, I also think that the trend of giving primary school children mobile phones is absolutely crazy, particularly given the high levels of online bullying that seems to be developing amongst children. And I don’t buy the idea that children need phones in order to stay safe, or to stay connected to their parents. For starters, children seem likely to be at more risk of predators online than they are in the real world, particularly when you consider that, despite media hysteria and the accompanying parental paranoia that has developed alongside it, it is still incredibly rare for a child to be attacked or abused by a stranger. Modern children are also seldom given any freedom to go anywhere unaccompanied, so when, exactly, is it perceived that they will be out of touch with anybody? So yeah, Hattie and Joe won’t be packing mobile phones or disappearing to their bedrooms with laptops for a very long time.

Why Hattie and Joe watch TV

Like many parents, we sometimes find that putting on the TV for Hattie and Joe is the only way to buy the peace and quiet required to make dinner, or do the laundry, or have a shower, or remake the beds – or give us a ten minute break, so we don’t lose our shit at them after a sustained period of low-level grizzliness. Or it gives them an opportunity to veg out after a busy day, or to have some quiet time on a non-nap day. When the TV is on they are captivated viewers:


So this is my first ‘real talk’ admission of my screen time post: we let them watch TV as much for our benefit as for theirs. With two little kids in the house, things can be relentless. It can be very difficult to get anything done, and they can be mentalists who drive us to the brink several times a day. A bit of TV watching can provide a much-needed break for all concerned. We also know exactly how much Hattie and Joe value watching TV – as evidenced by the anguished wails when their programme ends and the TV is turned off – so it provides us with great leverage for negotiating good behaviour.

Long story short: the benefits to us as parents of the kids watching TV is often considerable.

‘No benefit’ vs ‘no harm’

Please indulge me as I venture into the realms of analogy. I equate letting my children watch TV to letting them eat fairy bread at a birthday party. In an ideal world, their days would be filled with nurturing, educational activities, organised by an endlessly patient Mummy who magically gets everything done. In this ideal world, they would only eat whole grains, vegetables, and free-range protein.

Is eating fairy bread at a birthday party beneficial from a nutritional perspective? Of course not. It does them absolutely no good at all. However, is it harmful in the general scheme of things, given that they eat party food less than ten times a year? Of course not.

The same applies with screen time. If they did nothing but sit and watch TV all day I wouldn’t try to defend that, but in the context of what else they do every day, and given the rules that we have around what they watch and how they watch it, I don’t believe that Hattie and Joe’s TV viewing does them any harm at all. As with everything, it’s a question of balance. Here’s what they get up to in a typical week:

  • Two morning playgroups
  • Two mornings at kindy
  • Several walks, playground trips, or beach trips
  • At least one play date with friends
  • Drawing, painting, or colouring-in
  • At least half an hour of being read stories every day (and often much more)
  • Dressing up
  • Endless random games with Mummy, Daddy, Pauline the au pair, or each other
  • Brunch or fluffies at a cafe
  • One or two errands with Mummy and Daddy
  • Unlimited cuddling and chatting with Mummy and Daddy
  • 15 minutes of screen time in the morning, after they’re dressed and ready, while Hattie has her hair plaited for the day
  • 15 minutes of screen time while lunch is being made
  • 30 – 45 minutes of screen time in the late afternoon, while Mummy makes dinner

In other words, the time spent watching TV is very well balanced by the time spent doing everything else. Occasionally – on average once a week, usually when the weather is dreadful, or they’re knackered in the afternoon – they’ll watch a DVD: something like Frozen, or Finding Nemo, or Maisy.

No benefit?

Although I’ve said that I don’t dispute the relevant research, I do wonder whether it might be slightly less sophisticated than it could have been with regard to evaluating the impact of children watching TV – good quality, well-curated TV. I say this because Hattie and Joe were huge fans of Peppa Pig from the age of 18 months to two and a half, just when they started speaking a lot. Their vocabularies seem to be particularly developed for children their age: they speak in full sentences and use richer language than many older children (and some adults, let’s be honest), and it’s been said more than once that they sound like children out of an Enid Blyton story (and this is partially because they both have quite English accents, which I’m sure will disappear once they start primary school). Obviously, their language skills have developed primarily because of how Tristan and I speak to them and around them: we never used baby talk, and we use proper words and sentences all the time, and are both very wordy. The vast amount of reading aloud has also had a big influence – and this topic warrants a blog post of its own, given how much Hattie and Joe love books. But their language skills have also been influenced by the TV programmes that they watch. This partially manifests itself in their habit of actually acting out word-perfect renditions of favourite scenes from TV programmes or, more often, Frozen (we often see the scene where Anna confronts Elsa in the ballroom played out in our living room, for example), and also in the words that they weave into their own conversations. If your children watch good quality, age-appropriate television with characters that speak well, and it expands their vocabulary, I consider this to be a definite benefit of TV-watching.

Our screen time rules

I’ve already alluded to curating the children’s TV watching, and it’s important to point out that letting them watch TV is not the same as giving them unfettered access to the Sky box. Our rules around screen time have evolved fairly organically, without any great discussion, but here’s what we’ve come up with:

  1. We don’t use the TV as background noise. We turn it on when they’re going to watch something, and we turn it off when the programme is finished. If they get bored with the programme and start playing instead, I turn off the TV. Our house is noisy enough with the two of them running rampage – the last thing we need is anything else added to the bedlam.
  2. The kids only watch pre-recorded programmes. This means that we can be discerning about what they’re actually watching, rather than just plonking them down in front of any old nonsense. Some children’s TV is superb, but a lot of it is bloody idiotic, and we owe it to them to differentiate.
  3. We use TV when it suits us. As I mentioned above, there are set times of the day when the kids are likely to be able to watch, and we don’t often give way and extend those opportunities. Of course, there are some days from hell when everything goes wrong and it’s a choice of either letting them watch every episode of Bubble Guppies on the Sky Box or putting them up for adoption, but I’m happy with our 95% consistency on this point.
  4. We never watch the advertisements. This is why pre-recorded TV viewing is awesome (and 99% of what Tristan and I watch is also pre-recorded, because we hate the ads). For the kids, this means that we are spared the pester power thing when they accompany us to the supermarket – nobody is marketing to them, so we don’t have to deal with it.
  5. We don’t let the kids watch adults’ TV. This means that we don’t watch TV when they’re up. So much of what is on adults’ TV is totally unsuitable for children, and I don’t want to have to fly across the living room to grab the remote control, or shield their eyes from something dreadful. As a result of this rule my news-watching is severely curtailed, so thank goodness for the internet.

Of course, Hattie and Joe are typical three year olds: despite consistent application of these rules they still do their best to get more TV in their lives wherever possible, or complain bitterly when the totally forecast end of a programme arrives and the TV is turned off in order to eat dinner. But hey – they’re threenagers, and if they weren’t complaining about this they’d find something else to grizzle about. It’s in their job description.

Coming soon: my review of the best and worst TV programmes for little kids.

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