From a parent of a toddler: a reflection on screen time during lockdown and some advice I need to follow myself

by Hackney Speech and Language Therapist Holly Strickland

As speech and language therapists, we’re often asked by families we work with about recommended ‘limits’ for screen time (TV, computers, tablets, phones). The truth is, there isn’t enough good evidence around for us to be able to say exactly how much is too much. And even as the lockdown eases childcare options

are limited or non-existent and playdates and ‘adventures’ outside the home are limited. You may also haveto add working from home to the mix, and having to divide your attention between parenting and working can mean you feel like you’re not doing a good job at either. And sadly, there may well be ill health (mental or physical) or bereavement in our families on top of all this.

It’s no wonder we are perhaps finding that we need to turn to the virtual babysitter now more than ever, and you may have noticed the screen time in your home increasing dramatically, as I have in mine.  

It’s a time to be kind to ourselves, though, and so while guilty feelings are understandable, they are probably not helpful. But if it is something you’re worried about, here are some general questions (taken from guidance released by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in January 2019) that you can ask yourself that might help you identify if something needs to change:

  1. Is screen time in your household controlled?
  2. Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?
  3. Does screen use interfere with sleep?*
  4. Are you able to control snacking during screen time?

(* this is an area where there is some good evidence, and so the RCPCH recommends that ‘screens are avoided for an hour before the planned bedtime’.)

And, more specifically, here are some further questions and suggestions to help reflect on how to prevent screen time from having a negative impact on communication development, as well as how to use it to create communication opportunities.

– Think about the balance of screen time with time spent doing other activities: (e.g. playing with toys/you/siblings; going outside (for permitted exercise); drawing/painting/messy play; sharing books). Look at it over a week rather than a day and decide if you need to shift the balance towards other activities.

– Avoid having screens on in the background: turn the TV off if you’re not actually watching it (we can all benefit from a break in rolling news coverage!) Background noise makes it more difficult to focus on playing and interacting.

– Decide on some boundaries and try to be consistent with them, as well as thinking about how you communicate them to your child. ‘You can watch for half an hour’ might not mean much to a young child. A five minute warning might help some children, but you could also try to make the limit clearer by specifying which episodes or how many, or the moment in the film they can watch until.

– Think about what comes before or after screen time: be clear about what has to happen first (breakfast/tidying up/star jumps) and also what is going to happen next when screen time finishes: bonus points if it can be something fun!

– Consider your own use of screens and the behaviour you are modelling: are you being fully present or distracted by pings on your phone? Try to find times (even just 5 minute bursts) where you can give your child your undivided attention.

– What is your little one watching? There is a vast spectrum when it comes to the quality of different content. By watching along with your child, you can immediately boost that quality by turning it into an interactive experience. That might mean simply laughing along together and sharing enjoyment, or being able to act out, retell or just talk about different stories after you’ve finished watching. Could you pretend their favourite character is coming to tea? Is there a favourite song you can sing or dance along to with just the music?

– Identify some times that you want to be screen free (including adults’ phones!) – e.g. mealtimes, which offer lots of opportunities for communication, especially if you are able to eat together. If making all mealtimes screen free seems daunting, try choosing one to start with and go from there.

– Embrace video calls! Although technically happening on a screen, video chats with friends and family are a two way interaction and so will be helping children learn about communication much more than any educational app teaching shapes/colours/numbers/letters.

Countdown clock image created using InPrint 3 software