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Eyes on screens: handy solutions to end the gadget-struggle on kids

A child’s access to smartphone, tablet and TV – here is a controversial subject. A necessary evil? The cheapest nanny? An indestructible enemy?

Call you as you may, what we know for sure is, when used in excess, any type of device can do more harm than good to a child’s development. Sure, I am writing this article after an unexpected pandemic has locked us all in our houses and our worlds have turned upside down. These were times when we had no other choice than to use our gadgets – either for educational purposes, connection, relaxation or be to get real-time updates.

Hence, an atypical situation.

But, even in a quite normal 2020, my child and yours would have still shared the same world, the same reality in which gadgets are part of the routine. I have read an article a while ago about Molly DeFrank, a mum and blogger who took screens out of her family’s routine for once and for all. She noticed an extraordinary improvement in her children’s temper afterwards.

I was struck by a non-staged photo in which all six of her children were browsing books. Wow!

 

But then again, I believe this is an IDEAL situation, one which not so many parents can relate to.

 

Used wisely, gadgets can play an educational role in our children’s lives. That is if we can set up some clear rules on how to use them, of course

And you know how big a supporter of books and reading I am! But I do acknowledge the importance of technology I am doing my best to make use of it in the right way (I’ll explain what is “the right way” more exactly).

Now let’s talk about REALITY vs. EXPECTATIONS – I see this confusion way too often and it saddens me to watch the disappointment most parents live when they just can’t firmly say “no” to their children begging to watch cartoons. I’d know because I am going through this myself – I have not isolated myself to a remote island with no access to the www., I live on this planet –  just like you, go through the same struggles – just like you.

Just because I am a writer and a storyteller, doesn’t mean that I’m exempt from the reality of today.

Before I go into further details, here are some useful figures that the World’s Health Organisation (WHO) itself has published:

– children aged less than 2 years should not spend ANY time at all passively watching screens.

– children aged 2 to 5 should not spend more than 1 hour of sedentary screen time in 24 hours, though “less is better” they say.

How many of us, parents, are not guilty of not following WHO’s recommendations so far? I believe nearly every parent has such remorse.

 

We expect to use the smartphone for educational purposes only

 

But here comes the difference between reality and expectations.

You see, we expect our little ones to play nicely on their own, to be curious, to discover new things every day, for us to be their nice-guides, to have the energy to invent games, to read to them, to take them to the park and invent songs and pretend games. We expect the phone to be used only for educational purposes or to see our loved ones on Zoom.

However, back in the REAL LIFE, most of us have left their children on TV more than they should have or forgot to take their tablet for hours and hours, at least once. The reality is that you will not always be emotionally or physically available for your child. The reality also shows that there will be times when you are simply overwhelmed, and without other alternatives, gadgets are more than a good option.

In other words, we’ve all fallen into the trap of blue screens because – let’s face it – we don’t do this to “break” our children, right?

So, if we can all agree that our children will, inevitably, meet the smartphones or tablets at some point in their, let’s say toddlerhood, let’s move on to the next chapter: how to do this “the right way”:

– No screens after dinner time because they are unnecessarily stimulating their brain before bedtime.

– We delete or deny access to any application that the child might accidentally access (such as the bank or mobile application) by using a password. We don’t want the little one to make changes that we would later regret. Yes, I speak from my own experience.

 

Let’s go back to “traditional” ways of spending our time with kids – we could choose the book instead of tablet and pencils instead of electronic drawing pad

– Speaking about password, use an access code for the phone and/or tablet, so that you have control over the device.

– Do not instal any video games that are not age-appropriate/are violent/are not educational in any form. Or, better yet, don’t instal any video games at all!

There was a time when, as soon as my husband would walk through the door, Ilinca would ask for his phone because, to quote her, “I missed my tomcat so much!”. That was actually a sort of game in which the child had to take care of a kitten – feed it, bathe it and go for virtual walks. My husband thought it might be a good idea, in the event of us adopting a real kitten. It looked completely harmless at first sight, but when we realised that instead of jumping into his arms and ask for a kiss after a long day at work, our daughter would ask for his PHONE… we both agreed “no games!”.

– Make sure you keep your word. If you said it’s going to be 30 minutes, even if the child doesn’t know how much that is yet, then it’s a deal. Hands off after 30 minutes, ok? One time is enough to set a precedent and it’s hard to reverse it.

The next level, in which your child throws a tantrum (regardless of their age, ahem!) because you took the phone away, it’s going to happen for sure. You can avoid such dramas by simply keeping your promise. I wouldn’t go as far as to set ab alarm, because all you want is for your child to spend some relaxing or educational time on the gadget, right? You don’t set an alarm when you read an article or you laugh at some joke on Facebook, do you?

Instead, you could make her aware, every 20, 10, 5 minutes, that the time is about to go off so that she is ready when it’s actually the time to hand over the gadget and it won’t take her by surprise.

Now you will probably ask yourself, “ok, so far so good, but where are those solutions you mentioned in the title?“. And you would be right. But I felt the need to emphasize the “normality” of using gadgets in a moderate, smart way.

It’s okay to give the child the phone from time to time or watch cartoons on the TV. It’s NOT ok, though, to forget about him, or to not have any interest whatsoever in what cartoons or programs he is watching. I think that this stress of denying them full access to devices – when we ourselves are staring at the screens in front of them – only puts another weight on our shoulders, another reason to blame ourselves for not being good enough parents.

So, here are the solutions I promised, so that you can limit the time your child spends on gadgets:

1. Avoid using the phone/tablet as a reward or distraction

We more than often use devices as a way to keep our kids busy, so that we can work in peace and quiet

It sounds more than obvious, but many parents use gadgets as a way to reward their child for a positive attitude or even to “bribe” them. “If you behave at the party, you’ll get the phone for one hour to watch cartoons, deal?”. Sounds familiar? No? Then I’m proud of you!

I’ve seen way too many times children having a NEED to be met – either they needed a cuddle or something sweet or to stay for a bit longer in the park – in short, they had a NEED which the parent couldn’t meet at that particular time. And because the little one is crying like the world is ending, the most convenient option is to hand her over the phone. It works every.single.time.

But is it the “right way”, the one I mentioned above?

Absolutely not. Plus, it’s not even fair to your child. All we’re actually doing by behaving so is to set the child’s needs as a low priority (sometimes it is totally understandable, of course, but more than often it will make him feel like his needs don’t matter to us) AND, most importantly, it will reinforce the idea that whenever he cries, he will get soothed with the smartphone’s flashing lights.

2. Use other activities when travelling

This is my favourite part! We have never used any kind of gadgets in the car – mainly because we, as adults, don’t use them either, but also because it kind of goes against “nature” sort to speak. When you’re moving, your brain sees this as something to be expected, so when your eyes stop onto something static, you create confusion inside your brain. If it could talk, it would say something like “oh, wait a minute, I thought we were driving somewhere, but my eyes have a totally different vision.”. Hence the motion sickness.

So, find other creative ways to kill the time – sing songs, play “I spy with my little eye”, read books with little text, use the Story Flashcards (you can find them in our store, they are AMAZING for long drives), imaginary play, role play, puppet fingers – seriously the list is endless.

I think we tried nearly everything there is over the years and I don’t know which one is our favourite, that’s how much we love them!

3. Pick the story over the cartoon

I think it is so beautiful that kids know there is actually a written version of their favourite cartoons (well, most of them at least). This is much like the endless battle between the movie and the book – which one would you choose? Show your child the original version of the animation and if it doesn’t exist, invent it yourselves!

4. Make your own storybook

Mum and kids spend time together making a book

Making your own book is so incredibly easy and fun

Here is how you can create a healthy habit for your children: gather bits and pieces for 10-page books, to begin with. Spark their curiosity by inventing a story together (again, the Flashcards for Little Storytellers I mentioned above will come handy too), choose a title together and start crafting the book.

You will need white or coloured paper, coloured pencils, a stapler/needle and thread, pen, pencils scotch, paper glue and other DIY stuff your children usually use to play with (glitter, sequins, buttons and so on – just watch your child’s age for the choking hazard!)

Now you have two options: make an A4 or an A5 book. For the smallest option, fold the A4 sheets in half and tie them in the middle with a needle and thread (sew them 2-3 cm apart between the stitches) or simply staple them in the middle if you find it easier.

For the A4 version, it is best to staple the sheets and then glue an A3 sheet to the side of the spine, as sort of a cover. Start writing the story, then decorate it with drawings made by all of you and add all kinds of accessories. If you have older children, it’s fantastic if they can write it themselves, it will have a special charm.

This guarantees you a few hours of good cheer and connection with the little ones WITHOUT being connected to the phone.

Once they get the taste, they will want to make more and more books. I hope you have enough room in the library!

5. Lead by example

The nasty truth we refuse to hear about is that we also spend time on the phone. A lot! You have no idea how many times I found myself with my eyes glued on the screen, even though, 10 minutes before, all I wanted to do was to write a quick message. Children are excellent observers and they’ll do what they see. And it’s not even fair to stop them from using devices, we’re mindlessly scrolling on Facebook.

I know, Social Media is a real trap, and it’s brilliant too. There’s actually a fantastic documentary on Netflix that talks about addiction to social networks – “The Social Dilemma”, absolutely fabulous, I recommend it.

Now back to our business, we need to set an appropriate example. For instance, no phones when we’re together could be a good start. You can check your email or Instagram feed when the children are asleep or at school or on lunch break.

6. Give them choices

When you make an irresistible offer to your child, he/she will definitely choose that instead of any device

Okay, this will probably seem like a weird solution, but bear with me. Kids like to feel in control – you already know that. When you set up a schedule for screen time, it will look like you restrain them. So, no wonder why, although you give them full permission to watch cartoons, they are still grumpy. Well, that’s because access happens in YOUR terms and conditions, not the child’s.

This being said, a good idea would be to offer options to chose from. But not the kind of options are more convenient to you – it has to be a fair trade. Of course, you’re allowed to “cheat” for the greater good – after all, the whole purpose is to limit screen time, right?

You can also add “I have the train tracks ready if you like” or “I’m going to prepare myself for horseback play”. Give him a chance to choose how he prefers to spend his free time, while also gently guiding him towards the healthier option.

I promise you that, by being consistent, the option of screen time will not even be an option when the child has a much more exciting option to choose from.

So, what are your favourite personal tips and tricks to limit screen time? I would looove to know!

Until next time,

Cristina Guraliuc storyteller

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