“Mommy, can we play with Daddy’s iPad?”
“Nope,” I say without hesitating. "Not now," I soften the blow. Protesting, whining, counter-arguing and all sorts of admirable pleas that 8 and 7 year old daughters are capable of immediately follow to get me to change my mind. “Go play something... or else I’m going to put all your toys in the garbage.” I smile. What a mean mommy.
They scream with giggles and run into the hallway. They know Mommy [me] doesn't bluff... and they know they'll find something way more super fun to do than anything that damn iPad could’ve offered them in about 7 seconds flat. Two minutes later they're having an American Girl tea-party-slash-rock-concert. Yesterday they darted outside and built a fairy house with dead grass and roses plucked from our backyard. Tomorrow, maybe they'll dress up in their old dance costumes and put on a show for their LOL dolls.
This is our life. NO SCREENS.
I should clarify: No screens in the mornings, after school or at night if the day happens to be Sunday/Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday (basically, a school night). No YouTube... EVER (we watched one episode of JoJo Siwa hollering like she was amped on uppers while dumping juice on her head and I shut down that stupidity quick). Sorry, Jojo… but for real, honey.
But don’t worry, I have soft spots: Friday and Saturday I lean lackadaisical and let my girls play games on my husband’s iPad. Our Nintendo’s Just Dance has become the latest favorite family bonding time via our main TV in the den. Netflix episodes happen when we just want to zone out (because, yeah, we’re human). Homemade movies of dolls acting out self-written plays also happen with my husband's iPad. Everything is capped by “One hour at a time!” Ie: If you choose to make a movie, you forfeit Just Dance. If you opt for watching Spirit on Netflix, then forget about the iPad.
Why so judgy and shrewd about limiting free access to individual screens in this wide, digital world we live in? Because I work in media. Because I'm getting exhausted from appearing on live national television only to beg us parents to stop making excuses.
Thanks to all the research I’ve read, studies I’ve cited for stories, child development professionals I’ve interviewed, teachers I’ve talked with one-on-one, pediatricians who shake their heads about how many avoidable problems so many kids are combatting these days… unfortunately I’ve learned too much.
I. Will. Not. Do. This. To. My. Kids. They will know how to interact, to cope, to be. OR ELSE.
So yeah, I’m skipping the ‘my kid just got their first tablet’ portion of parenting… until 8th grade.
BREAKING NEWS: The idea of doing little-to-no screens is much scarier than actually living it.
A no/little screen lifestyle is NOT. THAT. HARD. Otherwise I wouldn't be doing it. I mostly work from home. I had my daughters within 2 years of each other. (The struggle of 2 under 2 moms unite! Not using a screen in restaurants with two toddlers, by yourself, will show you what you're made of. Trust me.) I don't have in-home childcare to entertain them, do my laundry or water my patio plants. If I can do no screens, so can everyone else.
Why make my life harder? Because our kids' physical and mental health is at stake.
This isn't sanctimommy stuff, this is science-backed real life:
For starters, the World Health Organization most recently blasted another alert for parents saying infants under 1 year old should not be exposed to electronic screens and kids between ages 2 and 4 should not have more than one hour of 'sedentary screen time' each day. Also...
- The American Academy of Pediatrics repeatedly reminds us of healthy tech guidelines; pointing out that more than 2 hours of screen time per day during toddler years can make kids almost 8-times more likely to develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) -- by the time they turn 5 --when compared to kids who spent 30 minutes of less each day on a screen.
- Scientists identify blue light from smartphones as physically disruptive to our brains, causing deficiencies in sleep quality for children and adults.
- Research has certified the ‘gamification’ of social media, video games and smartphone as being physically addictive, dopamine-inducing activities that affect us in a way ‘similar to cocaine.’
- Doctors and scientists have confirmed a solid link between scrolling smart phones and increased anxiety.
- Occupational therapists in schools are now warning parents that increasing numbers of incoming Kindergartners’ lack appropriate fine motor skills -- thanks to iPad swiping.
- Educators alert us that kids are more stressed, anxious and/or continue to show rising aggression towards others at school.
And, my favorite: Bill Gates and his wife have publicly and positively endorsed delaying giving smartphones to kids for many of the reasons I’ve shamelessly listed. That right there’s enough for me.
Think I’m exaggerating? Please, look all of these up.
Think I’m an alarmist? Please. I’m just a regular parent trying to pay attention.
“I don’t know how you do it” some of my kids’ friends comment as though we're living in a mud hut or something. “Aren’t you scared your kids won’t know how to handle technology?” Or: “It’s just too hard, every kid has a device!” is my personal favorite.
As for teaching my kids about tech – absolutely! I teach ‘em all about apps and Internet searches and fake news using my phone in spurts – they know what Facebook/Instagram/Snapchat is and they also know it’s not for anyone under the age of 13 -- by law (period).
Some of the family rules I started during baby/toddler years and still maintain:
- No screens (ie: movies) in cars – this includes 3-hour road trips to my hometown to visit Grandpa and Grandpa every other month. “Look out the window! Sing! Count!” I say. Sometimes they’d cry (I’d let them and breathe deeply as I drove), sometimes they’d just look out the window. Now, car rides are a cinch.
- No screens in restaurants. Hard & annoying at times, but worth it in the long run. (Those of you who once read my piece ‘There’s A Reason My Kids Behave in Public’ might be triggered…)
- No individual screens until 8th grade. [Insert gasp and side-eye accusations about raising my daughters in the dark ages here.] Depending on their maturity, I’ll probably allow them an app or two when it’s time – under my password-protection and full and open parental surveillance.
- No headphones allowed – I want to hear what you’re watching from the other room. Because you’re A CHILD.
Do my kids think I’m mean? Not yet. (For real, ask them.)
But let's get real:
“How are we supposed to keep track of our kids to make sure they get to and from during the day while we’re working?” There are wearable smartphone-free and screen-free options. Find them, they're online.
“But my kids need screens to wake up in the morning.” No child, or pre-teen (or teen!) should have their own screen in their room overnight… find another alarm system.
“The fit they throw when I take away the screen is worse than anything.” Aha, could it be the behavior/anxiety research findings coming to life? Let them cry. Scream. (Earplugs help.)
At my house, stifling screens has revealed:
- No behavior issues -- sure, they have wacky moments like humans do, but nothing extreme or out-of-control. Ever.
- Great conversations -- with each other, with my husband and I, with teachers, with adults they've never met in social situations.
- Creative growth & emotional depth -- reported by their teachers (and evident by their self-written LOL doll movies).
- Better quality family time -- no devices mediating our relationships means more meaningful connection between US.
- Ability to cope and pay attention -- at home, in class, with friends, in restaurants.
Giving a child a smartphone because we think they’re smart/kind/mature/ready as their own biased parents is like putting a 1 year old on a 2-wheel bike and saying “Ride! You can do anything!” It’s like giving a 7 year old keys to your car and saying “Drive! You’re smart!” It’s like giving a 10 year old donuts for every meal, every day, and then wondering why they have high cholesterol at the age of 12.
Kill screens for toddlers. Limit tablets for tweens. Resist getting individual devices until school assignments call for it – and then keep those devices in a common area to learn healthy management. Keep our own backbones kickin’ and say “No, not right now,” or “Time to put it away” for the greater win. Kids can and will do what we condition them for -- if we're consistent -- including all that involves these stupid screens. (Living proof at my house.)
I repeat: IT'S. NOT. THAT. HARD. I double double promise. You can hunt me down if you're not satisfied with screen hiatus results. We don't get second chances to raise healthy, productive, happy, mindful, respectful grounded kids. This. Is. IT. (And if we don't brainwash them about how to manage healthy screen time while they're little... how are we supposed to keep a handle on 'em when they're teens?! Oops, did I say that out loud?)
Only we have the power to manage and change what begs to be urgently reversed. Because we’re parents. And parents can. Together.
Jill Simonian is a Los Angeles based author, television personality and media host/contributor with 200+ on-air parenting lifestyle segments to her credit. Her book for first-time pregnancy, The FAB Mom's Guide: How to Get Over the Bump & Bounce Back Fast After Baby (2017) is a frank, focused love letter for bouncing through and staying focused as a brand new mom. Connect with Jill at TheFABMom.com, Instagram @jillsimonian or Facebook: Jill Simonian, TheFABMom Lifestyle & Parenting.