A report in the media today suggests that children under five are spending over 4 hours a day looking at screens – tablets, mobile phones, computers and televisions. It also states that a third of preschoolers own their own device.
This is certainly true in our house. We love our tech. Tink had her first tablet (we’re on number three – they’re not that durable!) for her third birthday, but she had been using our iPad much, much earlier than that. At first, it was amusing; how cute to see the baby ‘playing’ on the tablet, until we realised her movements weren’t random and she actually knew what she was doing. For us, this was a breakthrough. Although undiagnosed at this age, and the word ‘autism’ wasn’t even on our radar, I think we knew something was a little different about Tink; she was much harder to engage in, well, anything, than H had been and her speech was virtually non-existent.
However, the tablet seemed to engage her – she connected with it in a way she hadn’t connected with any other toy, book or game, or even many humans! She soon learnt how to find the apps she wanted, which she learnt how to use in no time, with no instructions or demonstrations from us. She learnt how to navigate to her favourite videos on YouTube and was soon deep in the world of surprise eggs and toys hidden in playdough. It wasn’t long before she learnt the security code for our iPad, which we didn’t bother changing as it was easier to let her help herself. She learnt colours, shapes and nursery rhymes.
But it was when she began playing alphabet apps that we really saw just how much she was learning from the tablet. Within one day of starting to play, she knew the names of all the letters and could identify them. She had never shown any knowledge of this before, but one day! And numbers quickly followed. She had resisted all attempts by us to teach her these things, but the tablet had her.
Once upon a time, I would have been that person – you know, the one who rolls their eyes and tuts at the children who are using phones and tablets at the table in a restaurant. But now? Now I’m the parent who panics if we go out without the tablets. Tink is so used to having hers at the table at home (as she eats better when distracted), that she asks for it wherever we’re eating, and the resulting drama if we don’t have it is best avoided. Believe me, you’d much rather have her quiet and occupied that running around or screaming if you were trying to eat a meal in peace! Our tablets go everywhere with us – out for meals, other people’s houses, nights away, in the car, camping (that was fun, trying to keep them charged with no electric hook-up!)…
And yes, I was (and still am, to a certain degree) concerned about the amount of time she would spend on the tablet. Especially as she usually has to have the TV on at the same time, and when she’s not looking at one, she’s looking at the other. It’s really, really difficult to take it away from her. I could use the parent controls on her own tablet which would limit her time, but she wouldn’t understand and she would just get worked up. It’s not worth the drama. I can explain to H that he needs to come off the computer or xbox as he needs to give his eyes a rest, but Tink doesn’t understand.
However, she is getting quite good at self-regulating her own screen time. I have noticed that she’ll play for a while, then stop, put the tablet down and play with something else for a while before going back to it. And we do try to ensure she spends time outside most days, away from screens and benefiting from fresh air and exercise. And of course, she’s at nursery for a few hours every day too.
So, I think, like pretty much everything in life, the motto should be ‘everything in moderation’. Four hours a day of screen time might sound quite a lot for a preschooler, but really, it’s an hour of telly in the morning while everyone is getting ready, an hour and a half on the tablet over the day and perhaps another hour and a half of cbeebies and Nick Jr over lunch and tea time. That’s still quite a lot of time not spent looking at screens, and, as long as children are getting out into the wider world and broadening their experiences that way too, I doubt it will do a great deal of harm in the long run.
For our family, screen time has been a huge benefit. And yes, I do use it as a ‘babysitter’ for those times when I have to get something done. We won’t be giving up our ‘electronic nanny’ any time soon. And if ever we do, it will be on Tink’s terms rather than ours, I suspect!