Is it wrong to let my child play on my smartphone?
We’ve often been told that screen time for children should be limited. But what if the real danger is our own addiction to our phones?
I have a two-year-old son who likes nothing more than to play on my iPhone. Should I let him?
The first thing to say about this is that if you talk to anyone who works in pediatrics, they will tell you the severity of the advice is relative to the severity of the abuse at the worst end of the scale. A guideline that says, in a wishy-washy way, oh, screens are bad for kids, but it also depends, and if you’re a sensible parent, even if you let them play on your iPhones for longer than is strictly desirable, we assume you’re not letting them do it for eight hours a day so it probably won’t make any difference in the long run. These are not the kinds of warnings that effect behavioral change.
The other thing to consider is the precise nature of the harm being caused. I go through phases of banning screens from my two-year-olds and then, inevitably, they bug me for something when I’m trying to make dinner, and screens are the only reliable distraction.
I feel guilty when I do this. It feels like lazy, negligent parenting. I hate the way that, after a few minutes of watching videos online, they get goggle-eyed and distant, so immersed in what they’re watching it take several goes to attract their attention. For a space of months, I succeeded in banning them from using all hand-held devices, which, during a fraught morning before preschool this month, I decided bought me the right to re-introduce them just this once. Before I knew it, both children were demanding the phone or the tablet all the time and I was, more often than not, giving in.
So what is the damage?
For children that young, the official line from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is that exposure to screens arrests language development and social skills. Until recently, the APP advised that for children under two, parents should permit absolutely no screen time whatsoever. In October last year, reflecting popular usage, it revised the wording of this advice, so that “avoid all screens under age two” became “avoid solo media use in this age group”.
My children were both early talkers and they interact fluently with others. I notice other things. When they’ve spent too much time on the phone, they are more bad tempered with each other and irascible with me. They show less interest in non-screen based toys and games. And when I try to take the screen away from them, they behave – there’s no other way to put this – like addicts, screaming, grabbing for it and dissolving into meltdown.
Some of what they watch is well-made TV for children and some of it is garbage, homemade videos of people assembling and dismantling toys, designed specifically for toddlers and hypnotic in its meaninglessness. Sometimes, if I’m not paying close enough attention, they stray from these sites to others. Recently, I went through the browsing history on my phone and saw that one of my children had spent 12 minutes watching back-to-back Geico ads.
Clearly none of this is good and I am, once again, about to implement a ban. And yet a couple of things strike me. Screens are bad, but over-scheduling our children is also supposed to be bad – shuttling them from art class to gym class to Super Soccer Stars to French – in light of which, 30 minutes of screen time at the end of the day seems to me not such a terrible thing.
I also worry about the glamorising effect that banning things has. When I was a kid, there were always a couple of kids in my class whose parents, either because they were crunchy lefties or religious maniacs, banned their kids from watching TV. These children were always insane when they came round to play. All they wanted to do was sit in front of the TV, staring open mouthed at the screen as if encountering modern technology for the first time. It’s the same psychology that makes instituting a total ban on sugar unwise if you don’t want your kids to get hung-up on chocolate, and, one assumes, is behind the low binge-drinking rates in France, where children are taught drinking alcohol is not a big deal.
It also occurs to me we might have the question the wrong way around. When my children are on a tablet or phone, I try to keep half an eye and ear on what they’re watching. I comment on it. I ask them about it. The real danger, to me, is not when they are on screens, but when I am. It is, I think, more important than anything to be in the same psychic space as one’s children and more than once, I have been in the park and looked up from my phone in stark terror, realizing that, if only for a matter of seconds, I have effectively disappeared while watching them.
So: I think it’s OK if you sometimes let your child look at your phone. I think it’s more damaging, when you’re with him, if you do.