Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Talking to babies is so vital to their brain development that it’s often called language nutrition. Yet parents of all stripes tend to overestimate how much we talk with our kids—and too often we talk at our tots instead of interacting with them responsively, which is best for their brain and language development.

Well, sometimes the secret to doing more of one thing is doing less of another. And such is the case with positive, responsive parent-child interactions and kids’ media use. If you want to talk more (and more dynamically) with your little one, then limiting the time they (and you) spend glued to a screen is a great place to start.

There was a time when parents only had to contend with television at home, but today smartphones and tablets make media accessible everywhere and every time. A 2023 study, relying on home recordings, found that average daily screen time for 3-year-olds was 172 minutes (2.86 hours) a day, almost triple the 1 hour per day maximum recommended by the Academy of American Pediatrics and the World Health Organization. And that difference amounts to a significant reduction in talk: 1,139 adult words, 843 child vocalizations, and 194 conversational turns lost per day, to be specific.  

When to Limit Your Child’s Screen Time

Our words and care beat the unresponsive drone of the television or YouTube every time. Unlike older children, toddlers struggle to learn from video—even live video—without someone physically present alongside them to signal that the video content is useful and worth paying attention to. Only we (live, present humans) can provide the specific, tailored responses to kids’ utterances that they need to grow vocabulary and understanding.

For kids under two years old, the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines recommend very limited media use, and only when an adult is alongside the child to “co-view, talk, and teach.”  An example would be when parent and child are video chatting with out-of-town grandparents. That is, media use for the youngest kids should be brief, interactive, and supervised, in order to benefit little ones. Many parents don’t want to hear this, because digital devices have become an integral part of our lives, but the research is clear: showing a baby videos on your phone is not educational.

Indeed, LENA data shows a negative correlation between hours of television and other electronic media detected in recordings and language ability in young children. And a longitudinal study of 2,441 Canadian children found that higher levels of screen time at 24 and 36 months old were associated with worse performance on developmental screenings at 36 and 60 months old, respectively. 

Once kids reach preschool age, the time they spend on devices should continue to be in the company of an adult and limited to minutes, not hours, per day. The bright side is: once kids are 3 years old, there is evidence that they can gain valuable alphabetic knowledge from educational media, such as the public television shows Sesame Street and Super Why!, especially if a parent watches alongside them, discusses, and elaborates on the content. So there comes a time when co-viewing video content can create opportunities to talk, build vocabulary, and support kids’ development.

And you don’t have to commit to watching every episode of Daniel Tiger to fulfill your parental obligations. A rule of thumb is to watch a few episodes to gauge the quality and appropriateness of a show for your child and model how to engage with its content. Once you’ve set the tone and shown them how media works, then you can slip away from future episodes to tackle other tasks or take a break.

Preschooler media use is particularly prevalent in households with multiple children, because parents use smartphones or tablets to calm or separate bickering siblings. But researchers warn that the quick fix has lasting consequences: “the negative impact brought by excessive screen time will actually increase the burden for parents in later life.” That’s because each additional hour of screen-time exposure is associated with kids’ increased risk for emotional, behavioral, social, and attentional problems down the line. 

How to Limit Your Child’s Screen Time

One strategy that works for many families is drawing hard boundaries around screen use, such as having device-free dinners; setting curfews after which all devices are docked, charging, and unavailable for use; or creating screen-free rooms or zones at home. Thousands of families have signed on for Screen-Free Saturdays, a nonprofit initiative that promotes unplugging, recharging, and disconnecting from the incessant marketing and manipulations of media and technology companies.  You could give it a try and make it an event by powering down devices at sundown on Friday, getting a great night’s rest, and fueling a day of family fun and conversation on Saturday.

Parents’ own use of media also adversely affects family talk. Numerous studies have found that when parents are on their phones, they’re less engaged with and responsive to kids—verbally and nonverbally—sometimes even leading to injury when kids engage in risky bids for attention. 

Now, I’m not saying we have to give up Netflix and devote our full attention to our children every waking second. But let’s be honest about where our focus is, what that focus means, and how we might take more opportunities to unplug from devices and tune into our kids. A survey of two thousand parents of school-aged children revealed:

  • 69 percent of the parents felt “addicted” to their phones.
  • 62 percent admitted to spending too much time on their cell phones when they were with their kids.
  • 50 percent had been asked by their child to put their phone away. 

Knowing better and doing better are two different things. Breaking our bad phone habits often requires serious intervention—mindfulness, that is. Jon Kabat-Zinn has defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”  Practically speaking, mindfulness is the ability to create mental and emotional space between a stimulus and our response. It’s cultivating the awareness, self-regulation, and perspective to consciously choose our words and actions (or silence and inaction) in the moment.

In the past decade numerous studies have investigated mindful parenting and found evidence that it can reduce caregiver stress and coparenting disagreements. Some of the same techniques that have helped parents step out of autopilot and respond to kids more skillfully can also serve to help us set aside our phones and converse more in person. Mindfulness-based approaches have helped people battling phone addictions in other contexts. In a pilot study of phone-obsessed university students, mindfulness-based training was associated with a reduction in the students’ cravings for their smartphones and in their smartphone use time. 

An easy way for parents to curb device use is to make a mindfulness practice out of the phone itself. We can follow the example of Marta Brzosko of the Self-Awareness Blog, who “created room for more conscious decision-making” around her phone by taking ten mindful breaths whenever the urge to reach for it emerged. 

Similarly, clinical psychologist Mitch Abblett recommends that after we reach for our phones we pause and sit with our devices in hand. Let our thumbs hover over the screen. Take a full, deep breath into the belly and notice whatever thoughts, physical sensations, or emotions arise. Get curious about it all, note whatever feelings come up, and continue to return to attending to the breath. 

“We simply (and yet with great difficulty) need to learn to hold our technology more lightly—with more awareness,” Abblett explained in a Mindful magazine article. “Consider making your phone itself a cue for waking up instead of checking out.”

Edited and reprinted with permission from Reading for Our Lives by Maya Payne Smart, published by AVERY, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

Copyright © 2022 by Maya Payne Smart.

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