12 strategies that have helped control my child’s digital diet

We live in an increasingly hectic world. I work as a freelance writer, and when there are looming deadlines for my writing assignments, it’s ever-tempting to let the kids go to their “nannies,” namely the iPad, TV, or computer.

My kids’ digital diet has been steadily increasing. Almost every day, JJ (or even his younger brother) will come to me and ask for some TV time.

I decided that I needed to do something about it, in order to curtail a downward spiral.

But why is it important that we moderate our children’s digital diet? What do kids lose when too much time is spent with and on screens?

This article captures it well: Even the smart kids are lacking social and conversational skills. They don’t know how to:

1) read non-verbal cues (which is a real problem because non-verbal makes up the bulk of all communication)

2) take turns

3) stay on topic

And surprisingly, it is the wealthier ones who are most affected:

A 2014 study in the journal Pediatrics found a 63 percent increase in disability associated with speech problems between 2001 and 2011, though the percentage of kids with disabilities rose just 16 percent. And the biggest increase was among the wealthiest families.

So what are we parents to do? Here are 10 things that I’ve found helpful for my kids…

1. Decide on a schedule

Work as a family to draw the boundaries.

Decide on a duration and limit that suits your family and your kids’ age.  For some, this could mean 45 min of screen time daily. For others, it could be 2 hours but only on weekends. There isn’t a right answer, but most experts recommend limiting to 1-2 hours of total screen time per day. As a guide, children under 2 need little or no screen time, while older kids can get some screen time a few times a week.

On weekdays, I work their TV schedule around the times I need to bring them out. For example if your child has music classes on Monday and swimming on Thursday, then those are no-TV days.

2. Make it a family decision

Kids are intelligent and understand more than what we give them credit for. Talk about why you need to set limits for screen time. Talk about the dangers of excessive screen time (less outdoor play, reduced social interaction, and how that affects children and even young adults). And then set the rules together as a family. This helps them to understand why too much TV could be a problem, and helps them to gain ownership over the rules that are being set.

3. Make it visual

Kids need reminders to help them control their impulses. After deciding on the days that we allow screen-time, I put it into a simple calendar. Because JJ isn’t reading independently yet, I put in simple icons to help him identify what the words are. But trust me, he knows what the two letters “TV” means…

And because he knows 4pm is TV time on a particular day, he will keep asking if it’s 4pm, how long more, etc. The schedule doesn’t mean that we need to be totally strict and inflexible. It actually allows for flexibility. For example the other day we had a playdate with some of his friends. Because they chose to watch a bit of TV, and it wasn’t a designated TV day, he negotiated to have it swapped with the following day’s TV slot. I agreed, and when the next day came, there’s wasn’t any mention of the two-letter word.

Of course, some days can be hard. He is after all still young, and waiting is a hard game to master. But it has its benefits, and sticking to the schedule, more or less, may even help them to learn the most important skill of all.

kids schedule

4. Have special TV times

We allow kids to watch their favourite shows on Netflix on weekends. The older ones get to pick one show to watch and this becomes their special designated TV time with the dad. You can even plan for a special movie night on weekends or certain holidays. This way, it’s the bonding that is the focus, not merely a screen.

5. Be selective with content.

Rather than allowing kids to watch anything on TV (because you never know what’s on supposedly kids programmes these days), I prefer choosing a variety of DVDs and/or programmes on Netflix and making sure that the content is age-appropriate for your child. I quite like some of the programmes on Netflix and find them both educational and entertaining (our favouites are Science Kid and Wildkratts!) plus the fact that I can hit pause when I need to, and of course…no ads!

6. Designate tech-free zones and times

Mealtimes and bedtime are the usually natural tech-free zones. Explain to your kids that these are special bonding and connecting times to talk and share as a family. It’s not good to be distracted by a noisy screen as we want to appreciate our food and actually taste what we are eating.

What happens when children eat with their eyes glued to a screen? First, they don’t learn to fully taste their food. Second, they have no idea when they are actually full. They only know that when they finish, the screen gets taken away. So it might actually take longer for them to eat, because they’re so distracted.

I believe it isn’t a route we all want for our kids. But if there is already such a habit, you can still take steps to cut down on the screen time, little by little.

7. Try audio books instead

Audio books are great, especially if you have preschoolers who are not of reading age yet. Listening to audio books help to hone their listening skills, and also visualisation skills, which is the brain’s ability to draw mental pictures. Check out Common Sense Media‘s and Modern Mrs Darcy‘s favourite audio books selection.

8. Increase sensory play

In order of turning on the TV, reach for a sensory bin. Sensory play can be messy because children are allowed to use their hands to feel materials like sand, foam, water, ice, or other things like beans and rice. But that’s just one aspect: the sense of touch. How about engaging the other senses such as smell and hearing? Sensory play also allows children to be in complete control of their actions and experiences, which encourages experiential learning. How do you do sensory play at home without making too much of a mess? Here are some ideas.

Sensory play is messy but fun!

9. Play old fashion board and card games

It helps to have a wide range of activities on hand to choose from, in order for young ones to not feel like they need to reach for the remote each time they feel bored. We love to play tic-tac-toe, Gobblet Gobblers, Uno games, memory games using cards, and good ol’ snakes and ladders.

There are many board games that can help encourage executive function and math skills too.

10. Head outdoors

Try to have outdoor time a couple of times a week, if not daily. Some sports or playground time? Outdoor play is an essential for children’s well-being. It stimulates creativity, promotes problem-solving, reduces anxiety, and increases imagination. (source)

11. Choose games wisely

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Tech can be used to our advantage too. When we need some time waiting outside, I occasionally let the kids play games like Cut the rope, which helps to promote flexible thinking and problem solving skills, and some Chinese word apps.

12. Lead by example

This is probably the hardest part for most of us. How many times have you heard your child say to you, “Mum, put your phone down!” (I admit, I’ve heard this at least once in the past week.) But if we can exhibit self-control, and even let our kids know our own strategies of controlling media usage, the kids will soon be inspired to do the same.

12 way to manage your child digital diet

I hope you find these ideas useful! What other strategies do you use at home to help your little ones control their media usage?

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