Screen-free fun

Screen-free fun
Like many parents, Claudia Lachaine and Mathieu Marinier often let their young son watch TV or play games on a tablet or smartphone.

Like many parents, Claudia Lachaine and Mathieu Marinier often let their young son watch TV or play games on a tablet or smartphone. It’s a convenient way to keep him occupied while dad and mom are busy! But would he be able to live without technology?

Édouard is only 2 ½ years old, but he’s already comfortable with technology. He finds his games easily on his parents’ tablet or smartphones. He also enjoys watching cartoons on one of the two TVs in the house. The ease with which he uses all these screens is impressive, but not exceptional. According to American studies, over 90% of children start watching TV before the age of 2. One in three even learns how to use a smartphone or tablet before learning to speak. And about 70% of children between the ages of 3 and 5 know how to operate a mouse.
Suggesting other activities to your child to replace screens, such as playing with blocks, reading a story or going to the park, allows him to explore the real world and spend more time with you.

“Édouard would often ask me to play with my smartphone or to watch TV when he woke up in the morning, before his nap and before bedtime,” says mom, Claudia. “I realized that perhaps we were turning to technology to keep him busy too much. So I decided to cut out screens for a week so that he could have a different kind of fun.” Her partner, Mathieu, wasn’t convinced, but finally agreed to the challenge.

Surprise: the screen-free week went by and Édouard survived without once kicking up a fuss or having a tantrum. Whenever he got bored and asked for the tablet or TV, his parents simply distracted him by suggesting another activity, such as colouring, doing a puzzle or playing with his toy cars. This is a great habit to get into anyway, since a toddler’s development occurs through the exploration of his environment, and he learns best when he interacts with a real person. And this is why so many early childhood specialists are against any screen time whatsoever before the age of 2. For children over 2, it’s recommended that screen time not exceed 1 hour per day, and for those over the age of 4, 2 hours.

The risks of overexposure

Between meals, naps and bathtime, a toddler’s day goes by quickly! So when a child spends too much time in front of a screen, he doesn’t spend enough time on activities that are necessary for his development (playing outside, looking at a book, drawing, playing with building blocks, etc.). It’s been proven that the more time children spend in front of a screen, the more at risk they are for delayed language, obesity, concentration and attention deficits, and bullying later on in school.

The use of screens may also disturb their sleep because of their stimulating effect. “For example, when the brightness on your tablet is at its maximum, it produces the same effect as if your child had drunk some very strong coffee,” says Linda Pagani, professor at Université de Montréal’s Department of Educational Psychology. It’s therefore recommended to reduce tablet brightness to 50% and avoid letting your child use a screen before bed.

Find the right games
Finding applications and games to entertain your child is easy! But how do you determine if they’re suitable for your child’s age? “The best way is to try the games yourself before letting your child use them,” says Thierry Plante, media education specialist at Habilomédias. You can also consult the Canadian site ÉduLulu (www.edululu.org), which evaluates various educational applications. The Entertainment Software Rating Board Ratings Guide (http://www.esrb.org/ratings/ratings_guide.jsp) also rates video games and apps according to age, and provides information on their content as well. The American association Zero to Three, for its part, suggests choosing games that require children’s participation and that feature characters that can serve as positive role models.

Are there any advantages at all?

Are all screens created equal, or are some better than others? More and more researchers believe that the interactive activities now available on tablets and smartphones offer more advantages than TV, which is considered more passive. They could be useful, for example, in introducing children over the age of 2 to numbers and preparing them for reading. Non-violent video games are also noted to stimulate attention, motivation and problem solving skills, according to an Australian study conducted among 10,000 children between the ages of 2 and 5.

For many parents, screens also have the added advantage of entertaining their child while they’re busy doing something else. Such was the case for Claudia, who would often turn to TV or games on the tablet to keep Édouard busy while she breastfed little 4 month-old Florence. However, experts believe that screens offer greater educational benefits when toddlers are with an adult. The child benefits the most if you’re with him when he plays on a tablet or watches TV. He’ll learn more from a show about animals if you’re with him, talk to him about it afterwards and ask him questions about what he’s just seen.

The tablet and children debate

Even if tablets are very popular among children, the impact of their use still hasn’t been studied much. The popular iPad only made its appearance in 2010! Several public health boards and paediatric associations consider tablets to produce the same negative effects as TV. They therefore recommend limiting and even avoiding their use altogether before age 2.

The Académie française des sciences and the American association Zero to Three have a different opinion. They believe the tablet, which is more interactive than TV, can be considered a tool for exploration and learning even for children under 2, as long as a parent is with them when they use the tablet. Neuropsychologist Francine Lussier agrees. For her, it’s just another game among others. But tablets should be used with moderation. They cannot replace traditional toys or interaction with adults!

Conclusions after one week

Their screen-free week allowed Claudia to discover other ways of entertaining her son when she’s busy. “I would sit him beside me to tell him a story while I breastfed or I would get down on the floor to play blocks with him,” she explains. “Édouard also started helping out with household chores. For example, he’d put his toys away with us instead of staying seated in front of a screen.” “This isn’t a chore for a child. It’s like a game and an opportunity to be with you,” says André H. Caron, Director of the Centre for Youth and Media Studies. Asking your child to help you or suggesting an activity he can do alone is a good alternative to screens when you need to keep him busy.

The screen-free week also brought the family closer. “When we watch a movie together, it’s nice, but we talk less than when the TV is turned off,” say the parents. They also discovered that Édouard, who’s a puzzle champ on the smartphone, had a harder time putting a puzzle together in real life. “He got a lot better at doing real puzzles during that week,” says his mom.

“It also allowed us to play more with the kids,” adds Mathieu. “And we had more time to talk as a couple. I found that fun. We won’t cut screens all the time, but we’ll definitely turn them off more often!” The parents plan to have at least one or two screen-free days per week.

Remember

  • Spending less time in front of a screen allows your child to enjoy activities that are essential for his development, such as moving, playing and having fun with his parents and friends.
  • Staying beside your child when he uses a screen (TV, tablet or smartphone) and asking him questions about what he’s doing helps him acquire learning.
  • Limiting your screen and social media use when in your child’s presence enables you to give him your full attention.