Raising kids in a 'low media' home

Do you switch it off?
Do you switch it off? Photo: Getty Images

Many adults limit how much television their children watch because of concerns about its content. They don't want their kids to repeat naughty words or learn from bad influences. Today's newest batch of young parents has a different concern, though. It isn't about what's on TV, but rather that the TV is on at all.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended for several years that children younger than 2 shouldn't be exposed to any TV, computer or phone screens, if possible. This is because a baby's brain develops at a rapid rate and is constantly absorbing information. Significant evidence has shown that too much screen time at a young age can increase the risk of developing ADHD, sleep disorders and other cognitive issues.

Armed with this knowledge, Laura Nold and her husband decided to raise their daughter in a low-media environment. This means 1-year-old Elliana has had very little contact with TVs, computers, tablets or smart phones in her short life.

"For us, it means that I never turn the television on with the intent of her watching television," Ms Nold says. "... The only time the TV is ever on whenever she is up is if there is a baseball game or a football game on. Even with that, we'll mute the TV and then we have her turned, like her back is facing the TV, and then we'll play with her so that she's not watching it."

Ms Nold is a registered nurse and often works with children who have behavioural or attention disorders, so she knows firsthand what too much screen time can do to a child's development. She believes face-to-face interaction is the best way for Elli to learn and grow.

"Her language skills are really advanced for her age ... and I do attribute some of that to not having the screen time and having more interaction with adults and with other kids," she says, noting that they're currently working on baby sign language together.

Ms Nold does intend to allow her daughter to have limited access to screens as she gets older. However, it will be much lower than the estimated seven hours a day the AAP reports the average child is exposed to.

"That's not to say that we won't ever let her play with an iPad because we will, I mean it's unrealistic to say that you can never have a smart phone or an iPad. But I think it's just limiting the time you can spend on it. After age 2, she can make the choice to, for instance, either watch half an hour of television a day or play with an iPad for half an hour a day," she says.

The reason many parents allow their young children to play tablet games or watch TV is because they need time to achieve certain tasks without interference. If the kitchen sink is full of dishes, it's tempting to sit the kids on the couch with a movie while you finish cleaning up. However, there are better alternatives to screen time when you need to get something done.

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"When she was smaller, I baby-wore her a lot. ... If I needed to do dishes, rather than sit her in front of the TV I would put her in my carrier and I would do dishes and I would include her in that," Ms Nold says.

She says letting her daughter play with dishes or laundry while she finishes chores also can be a learning experience. A pile of clean socks turns into an opportunity to teach her about colours, textures and sorting.

Another method to distract young kids when you need time to yourself is to teach them to engage in self-directed play. This form of playtime, which encourages using simple toys like blocks, cars or art supplies, allows kids to create and explore without help from an adult. It also ensures that adults get some free time without ignoring their child's needs.

"A lot of times kids are underfoot when it's not convenient, like when you need to shower or are cooking dinner. A lot of times it's not safe to have them underfoot ... or you just need 15 minutes to collect your thoughts," says Kayte Langner, a parent educator with Parents As Teachers.

With her own four children, Ms. Langner says she has eight different boxes in her kitchen that are designated for self-directed play. If she needs the kids to play by themselves, she lets them pick which toys or activities they want. Since those toys only come out on occasion, she says the kids regard them as special privileges and enjoy getting to play with them on their own.

"It gives them the option to make their own choice and then they will stick with it longer," she says.

Both Ms Nold and Ms Langner agree that some games, shows and other forms of media are educational and can be beneficial to children. Most teachers use smart boards, show movies and allow computer access in class, so it's impossible to avoid media exposure forever. However, it's important to consider the benefits of tuning out for those first two years in case you're worried about future problems.

"I think you have to just kind of decide what's right for your family, because I know a lot of parents who have children that let their kids (Elli's) age watch TV and they're great parents, and their children are thriving and doing really well. So I think you just have to decide what's right for your child and their personality," Ms Nold says.

- Essential Mums

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