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I Worry That Limiting My Kids' Screen Time Is Holding Them Back

Why I wish I'd introduced more tech tools sooner

Published on: October 11, 2019

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When my oldest daughters were small, I took the early research about the dangers of screen time very seriously. At the time, the American Pediatric Association's warnings about exposing infants and toddlers to screens scared me. I was concerned about the link between behavioral disorders and too much screen time. I was worried about the impact screens might have on their learning, creativity and social development. I also wanted my kids to have a simple childhood, much like mine: finger painting, playing make-believe and running around outside. So, my husband and I made the decision never to use screens when our girls were in the room. In fact, in compliance with APA recommendations, we were dutiful when it came to not introducing any screen time at all until they were over 2 years of age.

If we ate at a restaurant where screens were visible, we'd distract their gaze or move tables. On visits to see family or friends, we insisted TVs remain off in their homes. We were even careful not to check a text or email in front of them. If that sounds over the top to you, that's because it was. At the time, we were determined not to let our kids fall prey to the dangers of too much tech too soon. 

As they got older, we relaxed the rules a bit and allowed them to play on our phones or watch small amounts of television, but not much. Up until recently, they rarely touched a computer and they still have trouble operating our devices or playing video games at friends' houses. While in the early years of parenting this screen-time prohibition made me feel proud, these days I mostly feel worried. I now realize that sheltering them from screens for so long is holding them back.

This year, my older daughters are both in middle school. I've noticed that in the transition from elementary school, their teachers expect them to navigate tech tools and online learning with little guidance. Most of their peers can. Increasingly, group projects, class assessments, textbooks, homework assignments and grades are all accessed online

Electives like tech-ed (formerly shop), art, music and yearbook classes rely heavily or exclusively on computer skills. In tech-ed classes, kids craft 3-D models using an online program. In art class, they create design mockups using a stylus. In music class, they learn songs by watching YouTube videos for homework. Yearbook picture layouts are done entirely through computer programming. It's been quite an adjustment for my girls. Now, in addition to all the other things that make middle school hard, they must also play catch-up in the tech-skills department.

It's not just my older daughters who are having trouble keeping pace. Last year, my youngest daughter's second-grade teacher told me she was curious about why her state test scores were so low. When her teacher re-administered a similar test on paper, she aced it. My daughter wasn't able to demonstrate her knowledge on the computer test because she had no experience using one. This year, her teacher is using iReady on class iPads to level students in reading and math. Recently, my daughter came home in tears. She scored far below her ability, resulting in her tracking into a remedial group and making the day's lessons mind-numbingly boring.

Not only that, but two of our four children have learning disabilities. I've recently discovered how much more accessible digital formats can be for atypical learners. So, I've had to rethink my prejudices about what tools are helpful for learning, creativity and communication.

I don't regret shielding my kids from screens when they were toddlers. There's now more research than ever on the consequences of too much screen time for young children. But watching them struggle now, I regret not taking a more balanced approach to tech use along the way. I wish I'd known then what I know now: That screen time, like everything else, is fine in moderation. That not all time spent using technology is mindless or bad. And most importantly, that kids are growing up in an increasingly digital world and they must learn to navigate their way through it eventually.

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