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Jul 23 2013

Interviews with Interesting Jews: Doctor G on Screen Time for Kids

By at 10:10 am

little girl on computerI held off on any screen time for my firstborn until after he was 2 years old. Not because of the American Academy of Pediatric recommendations or because I think TV is evil, but because I wanted to be the one influencing his newly developing mind. I wanted control over what concepts he was taking in and be present to talk about it when he had questions. All of this was relatively easy with one TV in our house that was never turned on while he was awake.

And then I was pregnant and dry heaving my breakfast into a trashcan and needed a break.

I actually had to teach my son how to watch TV by reading him Curious George books and then showing him that the same monkey was inside the television. It took a few times, but eventually he learned to love the show and I learned to love the 30 minutes I could hang my head over the toilet alone without anyone saying, “Mama is making that noise again.”

We chose Curious George because PBS has very little marketing. An external evaluation group recently reported positive math and science outcomes for children who tuned in. I’ve also found that the show introduces concepts I wouldn’t have thought to talk with my son about. For example, one day out of the blue he said, “Do you know if something gets stuck in the drain it goes into our pipes and we have to call the plumber?” Um… yes I guess I did know this, but how do YOU know this? Currently, at age 3 he watches Curious George or Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (an adorable recreation of the beloved Mister Roger’s Neighborhood that I grew up with to which I fully credit the potty episode with motivating him to learn).

I very much appreciated the recent post where Rivki Silver shared her struggle with screen time. In the age of iPads, iPods, e-readers, DVD, and DVR, it’s hard to know what is acceptable and what isn’t in terms of our children’s minds.

I decided to reach out to Deborah Gilboa, a family practice physician and busy Jewish Mama to four boys. She facilitates a new parenting show (filmed in Pittsburgh!) on PBS called IQ: Smartparent, which has touched on topics such as learning with games, girls and the media, and health, wellness and technology.

This is what Dr. G had to say about screen time and our tendency to feel guilty when we let our children indulge in what seems to be somewhat of a taboo activity.

dr. gilboaDr. G: Guilt is such a normal reaction to setting our kids in front of a screen. The main point for us as parents to remember, though, is that not all “screen time” is created equal.

It’s time to think about tech the way we think about food. I encourage my patients to think about “Go!” foods, which are very healthy; “Slow” foods, which are fine sometimes; and “Whoa!” foods, which should only be a really rare treat if at all. Lastly, I remind them that we can’t spend ALL our time eating. We can think about media, even for young kids, in the same way.

Tamara: Obviously Rivki and I have both found value in incorporating screen time into our children’s day, if at the very least it provides downtime for them and for us. Is this just us as mothers trying to justify our choices?

Dr. G: As you clearly realize, there are great aspects to the media our children take in. I sure can’t teach my children Spanish, but Dora and Diego can. Media often makes learning a lot of fun!

What we’re looking for is balance.

Tamara: Rivki touched a little bit at the end of her post about using screen time as something you and your child do together. My son also prefers for me to watch TV with him and it helps me to know what he watched for when he asks questions about it later. What do you think about co-viewing?

Dr. G: Sitting together and using technology or watching a screen gives kids some time with people they love doing something they enjoy. Even better? Taking that tech outside and using the tablet together to geocache or find out which stars you can see. Ask your teen to teach you to create a movie about…anything! When parents ask kids to teach, whether it is how to play a video game or set the time on the laptop, kids feel confident and valued.

Tamara: What are some age-appropriate screen times?

Dr. G: Doctors (myself included) still feel pretty strongly that kids under 2 should not spend time staring at a TV. We’re not yet sure what the effects are on the developing brain, and even the “age appropriate” and “interactive” games are still untested.

After that? Balance and moderation. Some technology, some running around and playing and some reading a book. At my house, kids “earn” an extra bit of screen time (45 min instead of 30) if they choose an active game for mind and body.

Tamara: How do I know if something is appropriate for my child?

Dr. G: There are so many great resources. I recommend commonsensemedia.org for ratings of all kinds of TV, movies, and games. For apps, check out AppCertain.com.

Tamara: Does screen time include time spent on computer homework?

Dr. G: Nope! But it does include all the FaceTiming and Instagramming that might be going on during homework time.

Tamara: Should doctors be asking about screen time during well-visits?

Dr. G: Doctors should be talking about media “nutrition” for sure. Just asking about screen time puts parents and docs in a tough spot. We need to emphasize balance with families, but remind them that there is “Go!” media and “Whoa!” media.

Tamara: What are some examples of “Go!” media and “Whoa!” media?

Dr. G: “Go!” media are things like math games, Minecraft (at our house) or sites like spellingcity.com or rosettastone.com for language learning.

“Whoa!” media would be games like HALO, pro-ana or thinspiration websites, or Facebook if your child is under the age of 13.

For preschoolers (aged 3-5) check out: sesamestreet.org, pbskids.org, learningplanet.com and abcmouse.com

Tamara: One thing we have done on occasion is let our son watch an episode of Curious George on an iPod while we wait for a table at a restaurant. How do you feel about seeing children in restaurants looking at iPads/smart phones?

Dr. G: If that is the place and time for that day’s media use, that can give parents a welcome night out. No one media use is “bad” or “good,” what matters is the big picture.

You can follow Dr. Gilboa on Facebook or find her on Twitter @AskDocG.

And be sure to check out her helpful parenting tips on her YouTube Channel.

You can view full episodes of Dr. G’s PBS IQ: Smartparent by clicking here.

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