Should children be allowed screen time? Two writers from different camps, Tatler’s Alice Rose and Courtney Adamo of Babyccino Kids, debate one of modern parenting’s big questions.
There are few things as contentious in modern parenting as how much screen time you allow. Some see no harm in letting children bathe in the glow of tablets, smartphones, TVs and computers during much-needed downtime, while others argue vehemently that screen time negatively affects behaviour as well as young, developing minds.
YES: says Alice Rose
Half-past four on a dark, wintery afternoon. Too early for bathtime, too late to go to the park. One end of the kitchen table is splattered with paint and glitter; the other splodged with nuggets of Playdough. My three boys (6, 4 and 2) have moved on to a hectic game building a ‘funfair’ with the sofa cushions. I’m trying to cook supper, reply to a work email, clear the debris. And then, naturally, WWIII breaks out – two boys in tears, one yelling at top volume in defensive indignation. I need Mary Poppins. In her absence, I invoke the 21st century equivalent: Peppa Pig.
Reaching for the remote control means breaking a cardinal household rule – No Television on Weekdays Until After Supper. But the effect on the hooligans is instantaneous and extraordinary. By pressing play on Peppa, I press pause on the boys: tears dry up, quarrel is forgotten, instant calm.
And then whoosh, the familiar slap of maternal guilt. Rubbish parenting. Chewing-gum-for-the-eyes. Of course, I should have calmed them down, sorted out the quarrel, made them tidy up the mess. It’s the same guilt-slap I feel when the two big boys play games on the iPad after lunch at weekends, and when I let my 2 year old play with my phone for 15 minutes so that I can make a work phone call… Yes, my sons’ screen time often coincides with my need to get stuff done.
I work from home and don’t have help, which most of the time makes me the luckiest woman in the world – time with my children and some semblance of a career as well. Occasionally, when the wheels come off the work/life wagon, I resort to the Square Nanny. Mea culpa. More guilt.
According to Baroness Susan Greenfield’s book Mind Change, by giving my boys access to screens, I’m messing with their neural pathways, limiting their attention spans, teaching them an inability to delay gratification, cutting off their empathy with the rest of the human race. And I’m probably responsible for the global decline in literacy standards as well.
Hang on, Baroness Greenfield. My sons’ school is introducing iPads in reception. If they’ve decided that four year olds are going to benefit from limited access to educational games, why on earth should I be feeling guilty if they play similar games at home?
When they’re exhausted after a long day at school, what’s wrong with half an hour’s decompression time in front of CBeebies?
Nothing at all, says former headteacher and father-of-four Andrew Hammond. Like me, he remembers racing in from school and flopping on the sofa in front of Blue Peter with a packet of crisps. “I’m sure the most fulfilling and successful adulthood is built on a secure and happy childhood, free from the constant need to prepare for adulthood,” he says. “Are we in danger of calibrating a ‘successful’ childhood against some measure of what it means to be ‘grown up’? So, therefore, what’s wrong with wearing your pyjamas on a Saturday morning and watching Scooby Doo? Do we need to diarise every moment of a child’s weekend? When do they have downtime?”
A deeply unscientific poll of friends and school mums is similarly reassuring. “We watch TV together as a family at weekends – while it might not be so good for the brain, I feel it’s good for the heart and soul,” is a typical reply. “Think what you would miss out on without technology,” says Emily, whose son Alfie is 11. “No David Attenborough documentaries, no Steve Backshall wrestling with crocodiles – and no cosying up together on a Saturday night to watch The Voice with a big bowl of popcorn.”
Several mothers draw a comparison between technology and sweets – it’s all about moderation. Mother of four Katy says, “My son adores anything techy so 15 minutes on the iPad is the carrot I’ll often use. It’s like chocolate, little and often.”
There’s a recurring worry that our children might be missing out if they’re not watching the same programmes and playing the same games as their friends. “I used to be much tougher about TV,” says mother-of-three Lois, “but found that many children who came for playdates were talking about programmes and characters that my children had no idea about, which made them feel a bit left out.”
One of my personal middle-of-the-night fears is that, as a techno-Luddite, I’m ill equipped to guide my boys through the electronic minefield. No such problem for Lisa Harrington, Chief Information Officer at British Telecom. “Unsurprisingly, I am quite a believer in technology and the role it plays, even for littlies,” she says. Her boys, aged 6 and 3, are allowed “small doses of friv.com and cBeebies websites as alternative to TV – they choose problem-solving type games and get a lot of fun from solving and moving to the next level.”
The consensus from parents of older children seems to be no phones or iPads in bedrooms overnight (“they’re all charged together downstairs”, says a mother). And strict rules about no texting at mealtimes, “No gadgets at the table, ever.” Says a mother, “but we have to lead by example so my husband and I have to be very disciplined.”
So, it seems, getting them used to sensible tech-management at an early age is the way forward. As another mother says: “All I hope is that I can be firm, fair and consistent – that in itself as a value might be the more important thing to teach our kids beyond the specific rights and wrongs of screen time or the educational value of a screen.”
Finally, back to Andrew Hammond: “We adults worry about children’s short attention spans, caused by the constant distraction of social media and fast-paced gaming. What we mean is, we don’t like it when they can’t sit still and listen to us adults drone on for half an hour at the front of a classroom. In truth, I think they still have a thirty-minute attention span, but it’s divided six ways – they are multi-tasking like we never could do as kids.’”
So let’s cut ourselves some slack on the guilt front and give ourselves credit for the hours of reading to and reading with.
The answering of endless, ‘Why?’. The clearing-up of lagoons of paint, blizzards of glitter, Everests of Playdough; the nose-blowing, hand-holding, game-playing, just-once-more-ing. The hours we spend shivering in playgrounds or teaching them to ride bikes. As long as television, iPads and the rest are a small part of this much, much bigger picture, let’s silence the guilty voice in our heads and celebrate our membership of this miraculous digital age.
As a sage friend says: “Let’s face it, like it or not, technology is here to stay. We have to teach our children how to use and enjoy it wisely, as well as to know that there are lots of other lovely things out there to do that don’t involve screens. It’s all about balance.”
Alice Rose is editor at large of Tatler Schools Guide. She has three boys aged 2, 4 and 6.
NO: says Courtney Adamo
Last year I had the pleasure of joining my 9 year old and his class on a school trip to the British Museum. It was my first experience as a parent helper in his class and I was really looking forward to it. The class had been studying Vikings as the term topic, and amazingly the museum was hosting a special exhibit on the very subject. I couldn’t help but think how lucky we are to live in London and have these museums on our doorstep, something I never experienced growing up on a farm.
But sadly, what I remember most about this trip is my disappointment. Though the exhibit was fascinating, many of the children were playing games on phones and other devices throughout the museum. Though clearly not condoned, these kids were sneaking away to a quiet corner whenever their teachers turned their backs, eyes glued and thumbs pounding against a little screen. These children were so consumed by the device in their hands, so addicted to whatever game they were playing that they showed no interest in the once-in-a-lifetime exhibit before them. My heart sank a few notches that afternoon. I couldn’t help but question what the future holds for our children if screen time is replacing real-life experiences and interactions.
I think most people would agree that a school field trip is not the place for electronics (they had been allowed, ostensibly, as cameras), but what about a meal in a restaurant, a journey on a train, or the commute to school? Devices are quietly filling the very few gaps in our life without stimulation. They are taking away our time to think, our time to daydream, our time to be bored, and our time to just be.
We have a simple but straightforward philosophy on electronics in our home. We don’t forbid screens – we just allow them sparingly, putting emphasis on time with family, friends and the physical world instead. We think electronics, including both TV and games, are addictive, and while they may be entertaining in the short term, they are often completely immersive and isolating, taking away from other more social, educational or imaginative activities. Though it can bring temporary tranquillity, the TV is never on in our home unless we’ve made a choice to sit down and watch a film, usually all together as a family.
As my kids get older, I am increasingly reminded how fleeting their childhood is. The window for imaginative play is so short, not to mention so important, that we really feel it’s important to make the most of this precious time. When they ask to watch a movie or play on the iPad we usually tell them to go play – build towers, read books, draw pictures, make a mess in the garden or even just be bored.
Along with necessity, I think boredom is the mother of invention, and I think it’s important to give kids the opportunity to be bored every once in a while.
Naturally there are times when they are arguing and moaning and I’m about to pull my hair out, but I would rather they learn to work it out on their own than to quiet them down with a sedative dose of television. If I put a movie on every time things got a little out of hand, my kids would be watching a screen on a 24-hour loop.
Again, I think back to my childhood on a farm. A downside being that we didn’t have amazing museums on our doorstep, but an advantage being we were too busy running around outside to have any interest in television. Cartoons and video games were simply not a part of our lives, and even as I grew older it was never something I missed. I suppose there is a part of me hoping that I can recreate this very play-based childhood for my own children. One where kids engage with the people and places around them, where entertainment comes from playing, learning comes from doing and boredom breeds imagination.
Courtney Adamo is co-founder of Babyccino Kids. She has four children, two boys aged 9 and 7, and two girls, aged 5 and 2.