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Promoting a balanced media diet

In my struggle to avoid relying too much on screen time as a parenting crutch, I have a few overarching goals that I try to keep in mind. One is that I want to do what’s best for my kids, promoting their healthy development and fostering their natural curiosity. I want them to love reading, but I recognize that I can’t force this so I try to give them lots of positive exposure to books and reading. To the degree that it is age and developmentally appropriate, I want to foster their independence and ability to make good choices and to entertain themselves without constant input from mom and dad (and yes, this has the added benefit of giving mom and dad a little break once in awhile, too).

When I first started letting my older son use my iPhone, we kept the time and the apps very limited. We started with simple word and letter games, and Elmo’s Monster Maker to help acquaint him with the touch screen. I introduced ebooks a little hesitantly, because I was afraid that reading books on the iPad could make him lose interest in print books. Boy, was I ever wrong.

We have a handful of ebooks for which we don’t have a corresponding print version, but of the books where we have both formats I’ve found that reading the digital version increases my son’s interest in the print version every time. He interacts with them differently and has never seemed confused by the different formats, but moves back and forth between them with ease. This is one of the clearest and simplest connections you can make for your child, and when you want to limit screen time sometimes the easiest thing to do is to pull out the print version of a favorite digital book.

But there are quite a few other activities we’ve found that tie in well to what my son is interested in doing on the iPad, and I try to pay attention so I can capitalize on those. For example, he showed a lot of interest in the word and letter game apps that we started him with, and it was easy to connect those with printed alphabet books. I recommend having a variety of alphabet books, with different objects or animals tied to each letter, upper and lower cases (not always in the same book) and a variety of fonts. Fonts can be a little confusing to children when they’re first learning the alphabet, so exposing them to the different ways that an “a” or a “g” can look is helpful.

If a child is a kinesthetic learner, there are lots of great ways to encourage letter awareness – give them magnetic letters they can move around. Give them materials they can manipulate to make letters, or show them how to make letters with their bodies. As they develop skills in other areas, you can incorporate more activities. When I noticed my son drawing letters in the air with his fingers, I picked up a couple of dry-erase activity books that let him trace letters, numbers and words. This has become one of our go-to choices when we need to cook or do dishes. My son sits at the dining table and writes letters and numbers while we do our work. And if you don’t have an activity book, you can just write some words or letters on paper for a child to trace and copy.

Games and puzzles are also activities that have strong ties between digital and analog versions. Some are very direct, like concentration or memory matching apps. If a child responds well to those games on the tablet, look for analog versions with the paper cards that they flip over. My son has older cousins who play a variety of different types of games on the iPad, and he is always checking out what they do (and we monitor that carefully). When he was about 3 I noticed that he seemed especially interested in games that required some analytical skills, but couldn’t quite manage the complex tasks involved in games that were designed for older children. So we pulled out some jigsaw puzzles and he really took to them. As his skill developed he achieved a level of independence with the puzzles that allows us to focus on other things while he works (and as a bonus they are a great calming activity before bedtime).

Another activity my son enjoys is looking at family photos on the iPad. That’s another one that’s really easy to connect to a non-digital activity. Pull out old photo albums, have the child look for people he knows and tell stories about what’s going on in the photos. It’s another way to build narrative skills and engage a child in non-screen-time activities.

As my son gets older and develops more independence, it gets easier to find a balance between sitting right next to him whenever he’s engaged in media activities or play, and using media as a babysitter. It’s valuable and still often necessary to sit with him as he does certain types of things – paying attention pays dividends in more ways than one. But now we have a tool kit of activities that he can do while we accomplish other things. If we stay in the same room, I can carry on a conversation with him and ask him questions about what he’s doing while I fold and put away laundry, for example.

Boundaries and transitions are important, too. We don’t have hard and fast rules about “x minutes of screen time a day.” We’re a little flexible depending on the schedule for the whole family. So it’s crucial that my husband and I stay in communication about what we’ve done during the day.  Some days there will be screen time, and some days there will be none, but we need to keep track to make sure we’re not inadvertently allowing too much. If we notice that our son is getting resistant to putting the iPad down when it’s time, we put it away for a couple of days. But we’ve found that we can often help him transition to another related activity and that really cuts down on the fuss. If he’s playing with an art app on the tablet when it’s time to turn off the screen, we might offer to get out markers and paper so he can keep drawing.

Another big key to this whole picture is modeling the behavior we want to see. Children are natural imitators. Every parent knows that the plastic toy cell phone has no appeal to their child. They know that’s not the one mom or dad actually uses. They want to get their hands on our devices BECAUSE that’s what they see us using. So sometimes the best way to encourage kids to engage in non-screen-related activities is to put away your own devices and let them see you doing other things.

I fully acknowledge that children are individuals, and that what works for one child or family doesn’t always work in other circumstances. But I think children are naturally voracious consumers of the world around them, and they are also naturally format agnostic. If we foster those qualities, they will last, and our kids will have skills that help them maintain a balanced media diet into the future.


Confessions of a far-from-perfect mom

There’s been a lot of discussion in library-land lately about whether or not libraries should be promoting screen time for kids by using iPads and other screen technology in storytimes and programs. Cen’s already made a strong case that we can use screen technology in a positive and educational way, and I agree with her wholeheartedly.

I’ve known Cen for a few years now. We attended the Eureka! Leadership Institute together in 2008, but we really bonded after the Institute, because we had our babies within a few months of each other. Now, I love being a mom, but it is HARD. Cen and I come from different family backgrounds and we have different parenting styles, but we commiserated over shared trials and tribulations of parenting, and a friendship was born. And although this isn’t my main point, I want to vouch for Cen: she is a woman who walks the walk. She has done an admirable job with her son of using screen time in a very limited way and not as a babysitter, and her son is reaping the benefits (seriously – his language skills are phenomenal). She wants libraries to be at the forefront of developing best practices in the use of technology with children because she recognizes that not every parent has the knowledge or skills to make the best use of screen technology, and there’s a lot of damage being done unintentionally. I’m in awe, honestly.  You see, I’m coming at this from a somewhat…different place.

I was flipping through a fashion magazine recently and saw a little feature where actress/singer Jennifer Hudson talked about some of her favorite things. She mentioned the iPad as an essential tool for busy parents, and I felt a rather large twinge of librarian mommy guilt, because OMG can I relate! I think it’s important for libraries to promote healthy use of screen technology because, even though I am a librarian and I know all the research about screen time and brain development and attention, I still struggle not to fall back on it as a crutch with my older son.

And I’m one of the lucky ones – although I work full time, I have a supportive husband at home and an awesome mom who lives within a couple of miles of me, so it’s not like I’m a single parent trying to manage on my own. But juggling parenthood with other responsibilities still overwhelms me sometimes, and as much as I would like to say that my son never uses the iPad without me or my husband sitting right next to him and engaging in the activities with him, that’s just not the case.

And yes, I admit it, my sons saw lit screens before they were two. 🙂

I have two boys – ages 4 and 14 months. We’ve been successful in keeping my younger son away from screens for the most part, but he does occasionally get a little bit of incidental TV exposure. He hasn’t shown much interest yet, which makes things easier. My older son has a varied media diet – we read a lot of books, listen to music, watch TV and use the iPad or iPhone with a variety of apps. We are selective in what he consumes and try to be vigilant about how much, but that’s where things get dicey fast.

I remember talking to my sister on the phone a couple of months after I had my second son. I was in tears because I was so overwhelmed, and my older son was acting out and the only way I could manage him while I was busy with the baby was, you guessed it, screen time. I felt so guilty, and yet I didn’t have the mental or emotional resources at the time to find other ways of coping.

My sister talked me off the ledge and assured me that the difficult season would pass, and it did. But there have been others, and every time things get hard I have the inclination to fall back on screen time to help me manage.

I know, I know, first world problems. Parents managed to get by for centuries without screen technology. Of course it can be done. But when the option is right there, well…it’s still by far the easiest way to make sure that our 4-year-old is safely occupied when we need to be doing something that requires our full attention, and that’s a powerful draw. Because he’s too big for one of these. (And no, I would never, although I can’t say the thought hasn’t crossed my mind).

I always check out app recommendations for kids when I see them on Pinterest or other sites, and it’s dismaying to see how often parents are recommending apps as a way to buy some quiet time away from their very young kids, and focusing on apps that suck kids in without regard for any quality or educational benefits. The stories people tell and the comments from readers are eye-opening (here’s just one example), and I would suggest them as recommended reading for those who think libraries have no role in educating parents about healthy use of various screen media.

For all my failings, it’s important to me to select quality resources for my son, and to develop tools that help me as a mom counteract my own worst impulses. I’m working to find healthy ways to keep my older son engaged and occupied when I need to without resorting to using the iPad or TV as a babysitter, and I’ve found that interacting with him when he uses the iPad and paying attention to what he’s drawn to has helped me tie in non-screen activities that are just as engaging and help minimize his technology exposure.

As a librarian, it’s important to me to share what I find with others. Tomorrow I’ll talk about some of the techniques and activities that I’ve found helpful as I muddle my way through, and I hope you’ll use the comments to let us all know about others that you’ve come up with in your library or family experience so we can learn and grow together.