Parenting in the Digital Age | S3 EP 77
Bailey: Welcome to Sense by Meg Faure the podcast that helps parents make sense of the early years of parenting. I’m Bailey Georgiadis and along with Meg Faure, who is a renowned occupational therapist, bestselling [00:01:00] author, founder of the Sense series books, which provide practical guidance on baby and child development.
Bailey: We are going to delve into a topic today that is extremely important to have. And it’s a topic that I can almost guarantee you our parents weren’t ever talking about. Meg, how are you?
Meg: It’s great to see you again, Bailey. I am very well. Thank you.
Bailey: There are two words that I can say to most parents today that will make them uncomfortable. Those two words are screen time. And I say uncomfortable because screens are a huge part of our lives and they’re here to stay. And we know that in the reality, like most things, there comes good and there comes bad. And I think that’s where the discomfort lies.
Bailey: There are certain schools that are using screens in place of textbooks. Kids are getting onto tablets and screens earlier and earlier. So how do we navigate this as parents so that we can essentially live with screens and not for screens? Meg, when I say screen time to you, what [00:02:00] feelings come up for you?
Meg: Hmm. It’s interesting. It depends on who I’m thinking about. If I’m thinking about myself, I’m thinking, Oh, again, cause I spend, I feel like I spent my life behind a screen. Because a lot of my job is computer work at the moment. If I think about my children, I’m thinking boundaries, they are older adolescents and young adults.
Meg: And they actually grew up in an era where there wasn’t screens in the, in the early days of their life, which I think was a relief. But now it’s boundaries, but when I think about little ones, which is where my heart lies and where a lot of my work has been, I do have a big caution button sitting over it, so I’m worried. I think that we are underestimating the impact of screens on humans, long term in life particularly if they’re exposed in the formative years. So, yeah, but I mean, like you said, there’s the good, the bad and the ugly, maybe the good is, that we can all be more productive and that we can get on and do things in our world where, I mean, screens are essential.
Meg: We found that in lockdown where it was our only form of connection with the outside [00:03:00] world. But yeah. Big, big, big cautions when it comes to little ones, unfortunately.
Bailey: So what are the potential risks when it comes to that excessive screen time?
Meg: Yeah, it’s very interesting. I think you have to go back when you start to think about the risks as to what is the gold standard for human brain development. And, I think every single parent who’s listening to this, the number one priority is they’re ensuring that they’ve secured their baby’s future, whether or not it is their career, their relationships, their their marriage there, whatever it is, that’s what we’re thinking about.
Meg: We’re thinking about how do we, how do we bring up these little ones? How do we nurture these human lives that have been entrusted to us in a way that they come out, kind of reaching their potential later on. And that’s probably the number one thought in all of our minds. Now, the reality is that there are only actually two things other than nutrition that a child under three needs and that’s sensory stimulation and emotional engagement. And those two things are absolutely key to human [00:04:00] development. If a child does not have sensory stimulation, they will have developmental delays. And that was seen very clearly in a piece of research that came out in the mid 1900s of the children who were found in orphanages in Romania who hadn’t had any exposure to sensory stimulation and they were profoundly disabled. And actually for many of them, there was no comeback from that, so we know that sensory stimulation and engaging with the world on a sensory level is important and equally and maybe more so, emotional engagement because of course, emotional engagement comes with the sensory as well.
Meg: But emotional engagement that emotional contact with another human being, usually a primary caregiver is critical for absolutely everything in life. And so, if we say that those are the two things that are absolutely critical for human brain development. Then we can take a step back and have a look at what technology offers and nine out of 10 engagements with technology for children under the [00:05:00] age of three will not have full sensory engagement.
Meg: It just won’t, it’s really just visual and auditory. And it definitely won’t have emotional engagement unless it’s a zoom chat or, conversation on a video with somebody. The two things that are critical, like that fertile soil for the human brain to grow are simply not there when we look at technology.
Meg: And that’s the reason why we hold so many concerns around this.
Bailey: Right. So, okay. We keep thinking about our little ones. Is there an age limit? I mean, should we be, should screens come with an age limit?
Meg: Yeah. Well, I mean, look, the American association of pediatrics has put an age limit on it. They’ve said absolutely no technology for children under the age of two and they’re quite, they’re quite set on it. And that’s based on the research that’s come out. They are saying that actually the research is showing that there are deficits emerging in little ones who spending too much time on screen time.
Meg: And so therefore none is the best route to go. So, there do need to be limits on it. As you get older though, and coming through from two years old, [00:06:00] then obviously screen time becomes important because we’re going to be working with screens. We know that our primary school children are going to be working with screens in school and that’s good.
Meg: And that’s the future of the world. So then screens need to be used appropriately. And then of course, there’s also screens for leisure and that’s also important. Just kicking back and watching a movie is also good. It’s a form of entertainment form of leisure, and that’s also good and important, but it is putting limits on it and it’s how pervasive it is.
Meg: That is the bigger concern and probably for older children. This doesn’t pretend for children to children under three, but for older children, social media, which is, which brings a whole nother gambit of problems.
Bailey: Yeah, sure. Yeah. Social media is a different, a different thing.
Bailey: So Meg, how does the content children consume during screen time impact their cognitive and emotional development?
Meg: Yeah, so, time is one thing, but content is another thing. And so content is very, very important. As we said for little [00:07:00] children under the age of two, probably the best is nothing. But if you are going to have any content for children, and this, I would say all the way through into the primary school years, you need to be very concerned about what that content is.
Meg: Very fast moving flashy kind of animations are not a good idea for little ones. They, think things are a little slower, things that make sense visually are much, much better for them. And you can think of Something completely ridiculous South Park, which you’re clearly not going to have a child, under the age of three looking at, but, just thinking about those animations that don’t really make sense.
Meg: They’re not fabulous for the human brain at all. So try and make it as realistic as possible. Something like, old fashioned Barney, which was a real, real human beings engaging. And it’s not fast and flashy is a whole lot better. So that would be important. Slower and more and language you can really hear and understand would be better.
Meg: The problem with language is that kids actually don’t, little ones don’t actually learn language from watching video because language [00:08:00] by nature of, of what it is, is actually a reciprocal activity. So we really, little ones only actually really learn language in the context of a relationship.
Bailey: That’s so interesting because I would imagine a lot of parents going, well, they were getting language.
Meg: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. Well, I mean, it really isn’t. And the reason for that is that we take turns. We read each other’s body signals. We listen to the intonation and then we also feed back. So an example of this that I often show when I do lectures is that talking Tom now talking Tom can repeat back to a child, something they’ve said.
Meg: So if a baby goes, mama talking, Tom can come back and repeat mama. I’m sure that you’ve seen that app,
Bailey: Oh, that little cat. Yes. Okay. I got you.
Meg: Yeah. That’s a little cat. And and so you could say, Oh, well, that’s great. Because when my child says mama, talking, Tom says it back to him, but actually talking to Tom at nine times out of 10 actually gets it wrong.
Meg: It doesn’t really sound like the correct word because the baby’s not saying the correct word. The baby’s also still trying to piece it together. So the air is just being reinforced. And plus talking, Tom doesn’t [00:09:00] actually stop and wait and read the signals and the context, and it doesn’t feed back good information.
Meg: So parents may have heard of the phrase serve and return, and it was a phrase that was coined by the Center for the Developing Child from Harvard University, and it really articulates very beautifully how language develops. It’s like a game of tennis. You serve, a ball comes towards you, somebody returns, it comes back to you, you watch it come back, and you then return it back to the person.
Meg: And so this is the serve and return analogy that we speak about now, that is how language develops. Maybe my baby says mama and I go, yes, mama. And in doing that, I’ve responded to them. I’ve returned the serve. I’ve responded that, yes. Oh my goodness. I’m excited. You’ve called me something.
Meg: And in fact, I’ve. I’m articulated better back to you. I’m going to say mama, and I’m going to say it slowly and in a way that reinforces that, that channel. And so, this is something that technology absolutely cannot do. And, this was one of the pieces of work or the studies that we’ve done was [00:10:00] actually specifically on, on children’s language, and it was done many years ago on the baby Einstein videos.
Meg: And by nature of the fact that it’s called baby Einstein, everyone thought, well, this is going to make my baby super bright. Baby Einstein videos was actually a startup started by a young mom and she then sold it to Disney for a fortune and when they bought baby Einstein, they then put through money at it and put a massive marketing kind of initiative behind it.
Meg: And so one of the universities said, hold on, this could be misleading. Let’s have a look at what happens are little ones languages or is little ones language developed further by watching these videos. And what they actually found was that children who watched videos under the age of 18 months actually had fewer words and.
Meg: And the exact mechanism behind that is partly that we don’t have the serve and return in a, in the screen. But the other part of it is that every minute that a child spends watching a screen is one minute that they do not spend with their parents. And that’s actually the last, because every time a child [00:11:00] spends time with a screen, they’re not having time with us.
Meg: And therefore they’re not having the type of interactions that give the sensory, the serve and return, and then the emotional engagement.
Bailey: You’ve just said something now that’s really struck me, whether that’s with parents, whether that’s with your peers, whether that’s just that human interaction, every minute is less human interaction. That is. Yeah. I mean, that’s so crazy to think.
Meg: Yeah, it really is. It’s an, and it’s an important thing for parents to be conscious of when they, engaging with their own screens while their little ones around.
Bailey: Absolutely. I actually want to get into that a little bit later, but I think there are a lot of parents who struggle with setting limits on screen time. Are there some strategies or maybe some techniques that you could suggest? To help parents really effectively manage their child’s screen time
Meg: Yeah, so I like to have little rules of thumb because they become easy for parents to kind of hang their hat on and to create boundaries around. The rule of thumb is, as the American association [00:12:00] of pediatrics says no screens under two years old. So I like to say no screens under one because that’s a whole lot easier for parents.
Meg: Most of us can actually understand that a child under one. Shouldn’t and can’t be using a screen and then from one years onwards 10 minutes screen time per year of their life or per age that they are per day. So in other words, if they’re one, it’s just 10 minutes per day. If they’re two, it’s just 20 minutes per day.
Meg: And then you cap it at 50 minutes a day when they get to five. It’s not, it’s just trying to keep like a little rule of thumb around it, because look, I’m a mom of three you’re a mom of two and both of us work, and we know that sometimes you’ve actually just got to put your five year old down in front of the TV, because you’ve got to get supper on the go, or like you haven’t had a shower at 10 o’clock in the morning. And so you need to just do something to be able to keep your child entertained if you don’t have a nanny. So we use screens as nannies and there’s no guilt in that, that we know that life happens, but be conscious about it and say right well 10 minutes of the day.
Meg: I’m going to [00:13:00] use it while I’m answering email, I’m going to use it while I’m preparing supper. But that’s how much it’s going to be. So curbing the time is exceptionally, exceptionally important.
Bailey: And also knowing exactly what your child is watching and having locks in place and all sorts of things so that, they can’t suddenly get out of one app into another. I think that’s also really important too. So Meg, I. I want to know, let’s say that your kid has an addiction to screens. What can parents do to now bring in some more balance for their kids?
Bailey: Because obviously this kid is not going to love this new balance. So how do we bring some equilibrium in?
Meg: I’m going to tell you an interesting story to illustrate this Bailey. Many years ago, I was referred a little, a pediatrician in Cape town referred me a little boy who was about six months old, who the pediatrician thought may have autism. And when this little one came in to see me he was a very fractious little one.
Meg: He didn’t make eye contact and he was 100 percent heading in the direction of being [00:14:00] on the spectrum. And I could pick that up absolutely instantly, but he was also a very fussy baby and he was spending a lot of time on screens because every time his parents needed to do anything with him, like travel with him, the car, put him in a pram or change his nappy or do absolutely anything.
Meg: They would put a phone in his hand and he would actually watch in the night garden, which was a little video at the time, a little movie.
Bailey: Yes, I know. That’s quite cute actually. Yeah.
Meg: very cute, but it wasn’t appropriate for six months old, but he would immediately quiet and down and he would be absolutely still. And so there was this like extreme screen time use, probably maybe 10 hours of his day.
Meg: His waking hours were spent watching the screen and there was only one way to do this. And that was to go 100 percent cold turkey and that’s exactly what we did. And literally within one week, I have the videos of each session, which I often will use when I’m teaching therapists, I’ll use them as some of my teaching material.
Meg: But literally within one week, this child started to change absolutely meaningfully, like off the charts. There was dramatic changes in it just because we went cold Turkey on the night garden. The reality is that for all little ones who have an addiction, and this was a clear addiction.
Meg: This was hours and hours and hours of screen, and they could not sooth him without the screen. And. We do get little ones who are in this rut, kind of three hours of screen. And if the minute you take it away, they’re throwing the temper [00:16:00] tantrums. So I know this, we’ve all been through it.
Meg: There is only one way, the very best way to do it is to go absolutely cold Turkey and then to build it back up again, because as a parent, when you try and pull it back in small increments, it’s actually harder, it’s a whole lot harder because there’s a fight every single time because their brain has been used to a certain dose.
Meg: And so just by pulling it back a little bit , it just doesn’t work. So a better way to do it is to set aside a day or two. And so good time to do it is over a weekend. And to know in your head that you’re going to go cold turkey, that we’re going to, we’re going to work back up and we’re going to have screen time again, but we’re not going to have it this week while we, away on holiday or this weekend, while we’re together or whatever it is.
Meg: I usually do it when parents are on leave on holiday or, over a weekend and then you go absolutely cold turkey and you’ve got to be ready with a whole lot of activities and games because their brains become super irritable as they come off that technology addiction. And [00:17:00] so that irritability is there just like if you had a cocaine addiction, but I mean, it’s just like any drug.
Meg: You don’t want to necessarily just wean somebody off something slowly. Taking them off cold turkey is often the best way to do it. And just, fill that gap with something else that is much more wholesome, much more flavorful, and that will actually, kind of delight their senses and their emotional bucket.
Bailey: I suppose it’s changing the dopamine levels, which we know screens give us, and that causes almost the addiction and finding the healthier dopamine levels by going for that walk in nature, getting sunshine. And that’s such a great idea, but you’ve mentioned a few times now about. Parents and our screen time, because it’s funny how, our parents weren’t talking about this.
Bailey: We never had screens going up. Now we are the parents of children that are coming into screen time. We don’t even manage our screen time effectively. I feel like there should be screen time limits for us too. So how can parents role model healthy screen behavior for their children? What sort of steps should we be taking to [00:18:00] demonstrate the importance of balancing screen time with other activities?
Meg: Yeah. And this is actually probably the even harder question because the reality is that some of our time on screens is kind of doom scrolling and going down a meaningless bucket of Tik Tok videos. But some of our screen time is like communication, like can you please pick up the older kids from school, message to your partner, whatever.
Meg: Or can you please, defrost the cubes of weaning food, that are in the freezer to the nanny or whatever it is, so some of it is essential. The problem is that every time your little one sees your head down in your screen, it’s a moment that. First of all, you’re not in their moment and in their mind, you’re not being mindful of them.
Meg: And then secondly, it is obviously modeling very poor behavior. So it is being super, super conscious about it. And actually having time when you just do not have your mobile device with you. And I think, as a parent. It’s just such an important message. There was actually a great video, which I often, when I’m teaching this, I often share this video with parents and it totally freaks [00:19:00] them out.
Meg: There was a researcher in America, brilliant, brilliant pediatrician, still, still alive. Amazing. Ed Tronick, and he did a a video of the still face paradigm. Now the still face paradigm, and anybody can go and look it up or Google it. Then the still face paradigm was basically a. Piece of research where a mom would be engaging beautifully with her baby, making eye contact, serve and return babies, coos, mom coos back this beautiful response.
Meg: And then the researcher says to the mom, now turn away. And when you turn back, you’re going to turn back with an absolutely still face and you’re not going to respond to your child. And if you go and watch the videos, moms, it’s quite disturbing because within a split seconds sooner than you can even imagine the baby picks up that the mom’s disengaged.
Meg: And this baby becomes very, very dysregulated. They start to fuss and cry and they reach for the mom and they arch their
Bailey: I’m heartbroken
Bailey: listening to this. It’s horrible. Yeah.
Meg: horrible. And it was. done because the [00:20:00] researchers were looking for what was the disruption in the relationship? If the mom was at the time they were looking for is if the mom was depressed or if the mom was not emotionally available, if the mom was psychotic or for whatever, for whatever reason, if you had a mom who was not meeting a child’s emotional needs but this obviously was in the context of a really good and intact relationship. And then obviously the mom in the research situation put on this still face, but this baby was very dysregulated. Now, when you watch those videos, and even when I articulate it to you, you feel disturbed. You can feel the baby’s dysregulation.
Meg: You can feel the baby’s anxiety. You can feel how disturbed the baby is. The problem is that every time we dip our heads into our phones, we are doing exactly that. And
Bailey: facing into our screens.
Meg: We are still facing and the number of times that we have seen it and we’ve all seen it in restaurants and I’m not pointing fingers here, Bailey, because I have done it too.
Meg: We have, we all do
Bailey: Mean, I’m so guilty here. I’m that’s why I’m sitting here going, Oh no.
Meg: know. Yeah. And the amount of times if you’re sitting in a [00:21:00] restaurant, you can look up and you can see a child who’s trying to engage or trying to show their mom something or toddler who’s tagging on their parent and their parents got their phone in their hand and their head’s down in it.
Meg: It’s a still phase scenario. And, so I think It’s going to happen. It is going to happen. I, of course it’s going to happen. I’m a realist. I’m not stupid. And I don’t hold gold standards for other people just as much as I don’t for myself, but conscious parenting is important. It’s knowing that actually, yes, this is sometimes necessary, but when I do it, I’ve got to be very conscious about what I’m doing, because by being conscious, it will limit the amount of time that your head is down in your phone.
Bailey: So it could possibly be things like this. I mean, I went to the park the other day with my boys and I was so aware. That I was taking lots of photos, right on my screen and taking photos of them. But then I was putting my phone back in my pocket. And when I looked around, all the little kids were playing and all the parents, and again, not pointing fingers, it was just an observation were heads down in their [00:22:00] screens.
Bailey: And I get it. Oh, they’re playing. I’ve got a second to, check emails, do my shopping to do list, maybe do a quick little order for online shopping, whatever the case may be. Looking at it and not knowing what was important or if they were checking in on a sick grandmother or whatever the case could be, it just looked so disengaging, so disinterested, and I suppose where you say conscious parenting, it is those little things like having a rule, no screens or phones at the supper table.
Bailey: When we go out and we eat at a restaurant, right, we’re going to pack some cars and coloring in books, and we’re going to chat about our days. We having those sort of rules. So maybe those are the behaviors that we can demonstrate. And it comes down to us because I’m also going to have to not have my phone at the screen waiting for that important text to come in.
Meg: Exactly and, I think creating little rules are important. I mean, the dinner table is an, it’s absolutely hallowed ground that should always be reserved for human engagement. And we have, we’ve always had [00:23:00] a very central black and white. Nobody brings their phone to the table absolutely ever and no TVs on during dinner either.
Meg: It dinner is for us. It’s sacred. The other thing that we did as a family, when I look back and there were many things I didn’t do right as a parent, but this was one of the things that I think was gold standard was that when we went away every year, we would go the Bushveldt and we would actually park our car, our rental car up at the clubhouse.
Meg: And we would put our phones and our devices, except for one that was kept for emergencies, but we’d put them all into the cubby hole. We drive the Land Rover down to to our house and our kids would not see screens. And that lasted until they were 18. They never, and my youngest is not there yet, but my eldest, he went till, he was 18.
Meg: We never, ever, ever had, had phones down there. And it was just, that was the way it was. And it was game boys, all the devices that were around in those days. You just absolutely. It was, it was hella ground. You didn’t do it. And those engagements, if I asked my children about their best holidays in their life, that was them, the other time is when you’re driving your [00:24:00] children.
Meg: And this is, for moms of primary school children, driving children to and from school can feel like the bane of your life. But actually, again, it’s incredible time because you’re not facing somebody, you’re not making eye contact with them. And so kids will say, Absolutely everything. You can’t believe the stuff you’ll get out of them about school and about their lives when you’re not face to face with them and they’re trapped in, inside a vehicle.
Meg: So, driving was another time my kids were never allowed on their phones while I was driving because I was performing them a service and therefore they had to speak to me. It was a rule. And So you kind of have these little rules that then, you know, and then obviously you have times of the day where, screen time is allowed another time.
Meg: It shouldn’t be allowed. And this is particularly for little children and for us as adults. In fact, everyone is for two hours before bedtime because the blue screens do disrupt sleep. And that’s, another one of our definite issues that come through with young children and adolescents is that, sleep is absolutely vital and it is disrupted by the blue of the screen.
Bailey: that’s so true. And I actually did a little test for myself. I love, it’s my guilty pleasure [00:25:00] getting into bed and watching a series. I just love it. And this is my first time to actually get some TV time. But I found myself instead of where I was, could have probably been asleep by half past nine. I found myself looking at the time and it was quarter to midnight going, Oh my gosh, how many I’ve binged this whole series.
Bailey: And then I would wake up the next day, absolutely exhausted. So I decided, right, you know what, I’m going to rather get some books and actual books, not on a screen and I’m going to read. And it was completely game changing. I felt like a. Better human, a better mom, it was healthier all around. So there’s definitely something to that.
Bailey: Cause I just thought, ah, yeah, yeah. Two hours before bedtime, but before bedtime, whatever, but it really is a thing.
Meg: That’s another thing you mentioned. There are places that for me are hallowed ground for human engagement and the bed is one of those, and if one of you is on a screen, that means that intimacy is not going to happen, so it’s just the way it is.
Meg: The bed, the car, the table and a holiday. And if you keep those boundaries and then you get a little looser on the rest, you’ve [00:26:00] already got a whole lot further.
Bailey: That is fantastic. This is such a good topic to have. Thank you, Meg. Thank you as always for your amazing insight. Is there anything else you’d like to end off with on screen time?
Meg: Yeah. Look, a lot of parents will be listening to this like you and like me thinking, Oh my gosh, I really stuff that one up. Like I do take my phone to the bed, which is my husband freaks out. He gets furious with me. And so we all break these rules and I think we’ve got to realize that part of life has been good enough.
Meg: And, there’s a lot of research that shows that good enough parenting is way, way better for children than perfect parenting. And there’s good evidence to show that. That means that we have to fail as parents in order to develop our children optimally. And then we have to repair those failures.
Meg: And this screen time issue is one of those failure and repair opportunities. Set your gold standard moms. Listen to what I’ve said. Read the research, be informed and be conscious, then set the standards [00:27:00] for your family and then fail against those standards and then repair. And I think if you take this, this podcast and think about that, that you’re going to be conscious, you’re going to set the gold standards, you’re going to fail, and then you’re going to repair you’ll be doing a great job.
Meg: And, and that’s what that’s, this is all about.
Bailey: I love that. And I think you really have helped us navigate this so that we can live with screens and not for screens. So Meg, thank you another awesome topic and really took away so many nuggets of wisdom, especially that for every minute that you’re on a screen, you’re not engaged in human connectivity.
Bailey: And that is fascinating. So thank you so much.
Meg: Thank you, Bailey, as always fabulous to chat. Cheers.
Bailey: Have good one.. Bye.