Lisa, please don't call us crazy

Toddlers and screen time is a controversial topic, but parents need to support each other.
Toddlers and screen time is a controversial topic, but parents need to support each other. Photo: Tom Roberton

Parents who give their children ipads and phones before the age of five are "crazy" according to Today show co-host Lisa Wilkinson – and at risk of becoming "utterly addicted" to their screens.

Wilkinson made the controversial remarks during a "Mixed Grill" segment with co-hosts Karl Stefanovic and Richard Wilkins, which focused on the "terrible twos".

"If, as a parent, you allow your children time in front of a screen," Wilkinson said, "you give them ipads, you give them phones, before the age of five… you are crazy."

Crazy.

The mother-of-three warned mums and dads that allowing screen-time before children turn five would have a negative impact on their development.

"Come back to me when they're 14, and they're completely and utterly addicted to their screens, they have no social skills," Wilkinson continued, "that's when you'll realise that what you did early has come back to bite you."

While some parents agreed with Wilkinson's tough stance on technology, others took to Facebook to criticise her for her out-dated "sancitummy" views. 

Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer, who is the founder of Digital Nutrition, says Wilkinson is just "talking off the cuff" - giving her opinions with little regard for the evidence. 

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"Does she have kids under 5?" Brewer says. "No. Has she looked at any research in the area? Highly doubt it. Does she go to cafes or take flights and see kids highly engrossed in their screens?  Sure.  Does that mean they'll all be addicts? Absolutely not."

So what does the research tell us?

Brewer explains that we know screens have impacts (both positive and negative) on developing minds. More specifically, she says, "unrestricted access to screens tends to have less positive impacts." Therefore, she notes, kids need strong guidelines and to be parented when it comes to tech use.

"We know that 'addiction' science is changing dramatically and that in terms of technology it is not a clear disorder," Brewer adds, explaining that only a fraction of the young people in the world who are using technology develop problems.

"Few of those, (probably 1 per cent or so) clinicians would actually say are addictions – in the severe medical sense," she says.

Guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics previously recommended zero screen time for children under two years, and a maximum of two hours for children over two.

12 months ago, however, the AAP announced that the guidelines were under review, noting that their 2011 policy statement, Media Use by Children Under Two years, was drafted before the first generation iPad and "explosion of apps aimed at younger children".

"In a world where 'screen time' is becoming simply 'time,' our policies must evolve or become obsolete," the AAP wrote.

Brewer explains that the AAP removed the time limits, replacing them with "parenting principles" including: setting limits, being a good role model and creating tech-free zones. 

"They know that the limits are 'virtually impossible' and were based on research done pre-iPads which was the game changer for tech and kids," she says.

In January, David Hill, chairman of the AAP Council on Communications and Media told NPR that new policy statements are due for release in October.

Given just how complex and polarising the screen-time debate is, these evidence-based guidelines are sorely needed to help parents make informed decisions for their kids, based on current research.

What isn't needed, however, is judgement. And, by labelling parents "crazy" for their choices, that's exactly what Wilkinson is doing. Judging.

Parenting is hard - and most of us are simply doing the best we can, in order to be "good-enough".  If that includes handing a three-year-old an ipad for 30 minutes so you can do some housework, pay some bills, breastfeed your newborn or have some downtime when it all gets too much, then so be it. That's your prerogative.

You're not "crazy". You're just a mum doing what's best for her family.

Discussions around parenting are often fraught. There's so much differing advice and no two families are alike. But while we don't have to agree with the way others choose to raise their kids, we can have these conversations respectfully.

And that means keeping unhelpful language like "crazy" – a term laden with judgement – well and truly out of them.