Screens have become a huge part of our lives in the last decade. This past year, the pandemic has isolated us even further, connecting us with the outside world only virtually. So, when we speak of ‘screen-free’ parenting, it might come across as a shocker for many parents. While each family knows what works best for them, this is a story of one family that opts out of screens for their child. This shows those of us who are curious how they make this choice work.
Hi Sunetra, tell us a little about yourself and your family.
We are a family of three with my husband Gokul and son Samvidh who is 3 ½ years old. Gokul works long hours and used to travel a lot for work. Even as he works from home now, he still gets only a few hours of free time in a day. So, for majority of the time it’s just Samvidh and me. I completed my AMI Primary Montessori Diploma in 2016 and Samvidh was born soon after. I chose to take a break from work since we wanted one parent to be with our child full time in the initial years. Both sets of grandparents live close by and we visit them often, so, Samvidh spends a few hours a week with them too.
How would you define the role of screens in early childhood?
Ideally, I feel there is no role for screens in the first 2 years and should be avoided. Beyond a certain age, children start paying attention and get involved in what we do, so it may not be practically possible to keep them oblivious to screens. However, in early childhood, it is essential not to give any dedicated screen time.
What are some reasons why you opt out of screen-time for your child?
We feel that screens are addictive. When children watch videos or play games, they are so immersed in the device and become unaware of what is happening around them. Screens are usually used as a means of distraction or to get them to do some tasks which they would otherwise refuse. The instant gratification that the screen provides makes the child seek the same in everything they do and this comes in the way of learning patience and the ability to stay calm and wait. We read a lot about this and also observed it in some children around us. So, even before our son was born, we decided that we did not want any screen time for him.
How do you manage to stay screen-free even during a global pandemic?
We have not thought of screens as an option for Samvidh even though we are in the middle of a pandemic. We do have video calls with family and friends to avoid social isolation for us and him also limit the total time spent on it. I found that sticking to his usual routine as much as possible helped him to adjust to staying indoors and after the initial week or two he adapted quite well.
During this pandemic, most of us are indoors working or seeking entertainment. How do you plan your own use of screens?
It can be very difficult to plan our screen usage especially as Samvidh is growing up, but we do try our best to keep it to a minimum around him. We absolutely avoid watching television when he’s awake. We also request grandparents and close relatives or friends to turn off televisions when we visit and they usually oblige. Work related laptop usage is unavoidable but we try to keep it at the study table so it’s not in Samvidh’s face. However phone usage is a bit tricky since we frequently check messages and do some reading on phones but we try to do it only when Samvidh is occupied with some play or reading and we make sure to put it away when he needs our attention.
How do you think screen-time affects language, attention and cognition in very young children?
Young children learn everything about life and culture from family first. They spend time with family members, going about their daily lives and automatically absorb language and social interactions and these become a part of them. Listening to and taking part in conversations with people around them provides a mutual interaction which helps them practice their vocabulary too. Some may argue that children learn language from educational videos but I feel it doesn’t give a chance for interaction and doesn’t help them to integrate with their environment. They actually become isolated. With fast moving images and sounds on screen children are just passive observers with zero effort which fails to create a lasting impression of knowledge.
If parents choose to give some screen-time, what would your recommendations on content be?
Content should be strictly filtered, controlled and monitored. As with books, it should be age appropriate and as close to reality as possible for younger children. Content should also be made available offline as much as possible (can download instead of streaming) and they should not be given free access to the internet. I’ve personally seen a lot of shockingly inappropriate content that children are able to access even by randomly swiping while watching videos.
Many parents find screen-time gives them a little respite. What would you suggest instead as an alternate?
I have found it most difficult to engage Samvidh when I have some work to be finished or when I’m really tired and need a break. It can also be very tough to keep a young child in a small enclosed apartment for long hours without frustration. Engaging him in the right kind of activities from the beginning has helped to develop independence in play and exploration. He does not have toys with bright lights and sounds but instead has a lot of puzzles, open ended toys like blocks and play dough, some pretend toys like cooking sets because he loves cooking and many options to colour or doodle. He also has a push car which he drives around the house and has a lot of imaginative play with. We have also been reading to Samvidh from the first few months of his life so he loves books and will sit and “read” them on his own when we can’t.
If he is still not interested in doing anything by himself and requires my attention, I try to involve him in whatever I’m doing by giving him little tasks that he will be able to help with. For example, putting things away or wiping tables if I’m cleaning or giving him small balls of chapathi dough to roll if I’m cooking.
Regular outdoor play time in the evenings help a lot to burn off excess energy and also helps to get through the tail end of his day when he would be tired and cranky if he has had to stay indoors the whole day. During these times of social distancing he’s unable to play with other children but still an hour or so of fresh air in the terrace makes a huge difference to his temperament in the evenings. We watch birds or plants around us and get some physical activity by walking/running around.
The pandemic has thrown families off schedule. Children are now indoors most of the time and lessons are happening on screens. How do you think this will impact children?
In these dire circumstances, schools have been forced to resort to online teaching and most children are now stuck in front of a screen for many hours a day. This in addition to being unable to leave the house will definitely be stressful for children in a way they’ve never experienced before. Children are also unable to express their frustration like adults which leads to changes in behaviour and unexpected outbursts. They really need strong support and understanding from adults to get through this tough period.
Is screen-free parenting a possibility? Share some motivation on why more parents must commit to this.
It’s definitely possible as long as we are willing to put in some effort and identify what our children need help with. Most parents introduce screen time in an effort to keep children quiet or sit in one place, or to make them do certain tasks like eating or to avoid tantrums or meltdowns. I feel that if we just take some time to think and understand what they actually need instead of distracting from the problem, it would help not only in that moment but in everyday life. Letting the child engage with the environment and become aware of what is going on around them feeds their curiosity and inquisitiveness which will help them further explore and understand their world better. This understanding also brings an air of calm and confidence since they have a deep connection with the environment. I feel all parents should try going screen-free for some time and see the wonderful effects it brings to the child which will be motivation enough to stay committed.