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The Unavoidable Guilt of Screen Time

Child on cell phone

As the parent of two preschoolers, it often feels like parental guilt is a staple in my day-to-day routines. I feel guilty for not offering my children Pinterest-worthy meals, accommodating their requests to eat cereal for dinner, allowing toys in bed for naptime…the list goes on. But perhaps my most cringeworthy struggle with parental guilt correlates with screen time usage. A very long time ago, in my pre-parent days, I was under the misguided belief that I would never park my future children in front of a screen to occupy them. In my infinite, childless, wisdom I believed that it would be easy to line up dozens of cognitively enriching activities. Also, we would embark upon weekly outings to either the library, museum, or the zoo. My children would be cultured and well read. 

And then I had children. Reality hit me –hard! 

As an actual parent, I now realize the error in my thinking. The reality is that on some weekends, between household demands and gearing up for another work week, screen time is my saving grace. Despite the autonomy to get things done around the house, I struggle with the idea of my children spending an extended period of time in front of a screen. 

The Facts

Why do I feel immense guilt when it comes to screen time? Because of the research. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released a recommendation on screen time exposure for young children. Essentially, children under the age of five should have no more than one hour of screen time a day. This information is significant because it is the first time that WHO has released standards on healthy screen time usage. 

Moreover, before the WHO, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) maintained a consistent restriction on screen usage. AAP has stated that babies up to the age of two should avoid all screens. Additionally, children between the ages of two and five should have a limit of one hour of “high-quality programming”.

Why is this important?

This week, the results of a pioneering study were made known. In the study, 47 children between the ages of 3 to 5 years old received MRI brain scans and several cognitive tests pre and post screen time. Results of the study indicated that children who used screens more than the recommended one hour a day without parental involvement had lower levels of development in the brain’s white matter — an area key to the development of language, literacy and cognitive skills.

The MRI results also indicated that excessive screen time was significantly associated with poorer emerging literacy skills and ability to use expressive language, as well as testing lower on the ability to rapidly name objects on cognitive tests.

What is a Parent to do?

If you are like me, when I read about the study, I immediately recalled the dozens of Saturdays that I let my children binge their favorite Disney Pixar movies. It is easy to feel like you have failed your child/ren. But I implore you not to beat yourself up! Just remember: You are doing your best when it comes to this whole parenting thing! Tomorrow is a new opportunity. You can adjust or implement new screen time standards in your home. Just start somewhere.

Here are a few tips and guidelines that I garnered from other useful sites when it comes to enforcing healthy screen time habits:

  1. Increase parent-child activities that are proven to increase children’s development: reading, singing, connecting emotionally, creative projects, physical activities.
  2. Use the AAP tools to calculate your child’s media time: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/media/Pages/default.aspx#wizard
  3. Establish a family media plan: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/media/Pages/default.aspx#wizard
  4. Babies under 18 months old should not be exposed to screen media, other than video chatting with friends and family. 
  5. For children 2 years old and up, make a habit to watch and reteach/review touchscreen content. It will facilitate a toddler’s ability to learn.
  6. Children from 3 to 5 years old can benefit from quality TV shows, such as “Sesame Street”. A well-designed show can improve a child’s cognitive abilities, help teach words, and impact their social development.
  7. Scrutinize educational apps on the market. According to the AAP, many are not developed with input from developmental specialists and can do more harm than good.

If you have any questions or would like to schedule an appointment for therapy, please call Amy Wine Counseling Center at 832.421.8714.

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Patricia Aburime

Patricia is a Licensed Professional Counselor Intern at Amy Wine Counseling. She enjoys working with women facing the challenges of life changes through all stages of life, from late teen years well into adult-hood.
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