Managing Screens Time: Tips for Parents

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Screens are an integral part of everyday life, but they can be harmful to development if they take up too much space in a child’s life. It is therefore important to teach children to use them responsibly as early as possible, as good habits are easier to form at a young age. Also, it’s easier to set limits for a young child than to take away screen time from an older child.

How do you manage children’s screen use?

Even if your child finds screens fun, you need to teach them how to use them properly and set limits. Here’s what you can do to manage screen use in your home and teach your child to use them responsibly.

Turn off the TV when no one is watching. The constant background noise of television has been shown to interfere with children’s learning.

Decide with your child when he or she can use the screens, and do so as soon as he or she is exposed to them. It’s better to set a specific time limit than to use the screens all the time.

If possible, unplug screens and put them away when not in use. Out of sight, they are less tempting.

Turn off the TV and other screens during meals. Not doing so deprives you of a moment of exchange and dialogue with your family. In addition, watching television during meals is associated with weight gain. This is because if you and your child are distracted while eating, you are less aware of your hunger and satiety signals.

Place screens in a high traffic area where you can easily keep track of how much time your child is using them. This also gives you a chance to talk to your child about what he or she likes online.

Don’t put a TV or other screen in the bedroom. If there is one, there’s a greater chance your toddler will be watching inappropriate content. Also, screens will interfere with sleep.

Stay with your child when he or she is watching TV or video. You can explain what might be troubling them, answer their questions, or simply discuss the program with them so that this passive activity becomes interactive.

Accompany your toddler when he plays on the tablet, computer or smartphone rather than leaving him alone. This way, you can chat with him as he makes discoveries or learns new things.

Limit the use of screens and encourage your child to do other activities (e.g. physical activity and other types of games). This will allow your child to develop new areas of interest.

Let your child turn off the screen as soon as he or she is able to do so. This is a positive way to make them feel responsible and to help them accept that their program or game is over. It teaches your child self-control, little by little.

Avoid taking away screen time to punish your child. This will only make screens more appealing. However, you can require that certain things be done before allowing your child to use a screen (e.g., putting away toys, finishing homework).

Give your child a few minutes’ notice before you ask them to turn off their screen so that they are not caught off guard. If there are only a few minutes left before the program ends, you can let them finish. Turning off the screen in the middle of a program he likes would be like turning off your screen five minutes before the end of your favorite show!

Embrace tantrums. If your child gets upset when you ask him to turn off the screen, stay calm and stand by your request. It’s important for your child to be able to stop a fun activity when necessary. This is a lifelong skill. In addition, your child needs to have a variety of activities.

Be a role model for your child by limiting your own screen use. Avoid turning on a screen whenever you have a free moment.

Recommendations for eye protection

To prevent eye problems, the Ordre des optométristes du Québec recommends, as does the Canadian Pediatric Society, that children limit the amount of time they spend in front of screens. However, it adds that, to rest their eyes, children should take breaks from the screen every 20 minutes to look away for 15 to 20 seconds.

How do I choose appropriate content?

Make sure that the movies, shows, videos and apps your child is exposed to are consistent with your values and do not contain violence or characters that might scare your child. You can check out the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which rates video games and apps by age.

Choose TV shows based on the youngest child present.

Favor apps that require your child to think and actively participate in the game rather than passive activities like repetitive screen scanning.

Choose apps that encourage social interaction. For example, some offer the ability to draw a picture together or encourage communication.

Also, choose apps that allow your child to make connections with the world around them. For example, an application that invites them to find triangle-shaped objects in the house and to photograph them with your help will be more enriching than one where they simply have to recognize a triangle among other shapes.

Test the apps before you let your child use them and look at the options available. This will help you find out if the game is age-appropriate for your child. Choose content that is learning-based.

Choose applications without ads. At a young age, your child does not have the cues to clearly distinguish advertising. If they are exposed to too many ads, they may keep asking you for what they have seen on the screen. Also, be aware of the “in-app purchases”. This means that you will have to pay to continue the game, even if it is free to play.

Set up parental controls on screens that allow it. You can also download parental control applications. Some Internet providers also offer parental controls with their service. Check to see if you qualify.

Don’t let your child watch adult programming (e.g., soap operas, crime shows and newscasts), as there is growing evidence that their content can affect toddlers. If your child is exposed to this type of programming, an adult should be present to explain what he or she is seeing on the screen and answer any questions.

When they are older, encourage your child to tell you if they are exposed to strange, violent or inappropriate content online. Explain that this is for their safety.

Children too exposed to screen ads?

Children see many unhealthy food advertisements on television and the Internet. This can make them want to eat products that are high in fat, salt or sugar, according to a recent Canadian study. At a young age, children are not mature enough to differentiate advertising from other content. If your child is exposed to advertising, explain how it works and what its purpose is. You can also choose applications that do not contain ads.

Things to remember

Even though screens are a part of everyday life, you need to set limits for your child so that he or she also has enough time for other activities.

Teaching your child to use screens responsibly is important because habits are formed more easily at a young age.

There is educational content available on screens, but your child learns best if you are with him or her while using them.

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