Everything you want to know about media use for children—but didn't know who to ask
It's been that day—when the child has had too much screentime, too little activity, not enough food and water, and is hangry as I try to get him off the device, into the bath and away to dinner, then bedtime. After which I still need to kill that deadline.
I'm betting I'm not alone‚ and it's not just because of Covid-19 crisis either. For some of us, working from home with a child and no adult help has been a daily reality for a good while. And in the circumstances, if we've used the screen to babysit on a particularly bad day... Is it really so very bad? Hey, no judgement here. But it helps to come at that dicey decision from a place of informed choice, right? It does help me at least decide when it may be worth rolling with it—and suck up the consequences of a tired, overstimulated youngling... and when to suck up the whining, and nonstop chatter, and demands for snack, and Lego skill appreciation, while I try to write a single sentence for 20 minutes together, getting increasingly hangry myself...
This week, we’re in talks with Amita Malhotra, a communication professional who has worked for 13 years in the media and is mother to a 5-year-old—the “important catalyst to the work I pursue today”, she says, with a focus on both gender and media. Some of you already know Amita from her “gender-cool” EqualiTee brand of t-shirts, stationery and more, available on the Nestery. The other topic close to her heart is what we’re examining today—Amita also runs Candidly, a platform for creating awareness among children, young adults and parents on gender, sexuality and media.
Meet the expert - Amita Malhotra
We'll be talking about:
- media guidelines, especially for screen time, by ages and stages
- dealing with extended family on a different TV schedule than you'd like for your child
- different kinds of screen time and why they aren't equal: passive (sedentary) and more active, interactive, engaging—from watching videos, to playing games, to video calls and group chats
- adapting to the Covid-19 context for digital entertainment and education
- finding quality, age-appropriate content for your child
- safe internet usage for children
- 'media hygiene', internet etiquette and technological security—all the things you as a parent need to monitor and model
- when to get your child their own phone, and what sort to select
The first thing we asked Amita...
How do we know when to set safe limits on a child's media use?
As a parent, I have often complained about the absence of guidelines for media use in the Indian context. However, Amita helped me see this issue from a different perspective—that in a world with universal connectedness and global issues, our parenting concerns are universal as well. As Amita says, “Whether you are a parent in Boston or in Mumbai, at a basic level, we are using the same global apps or media to navigate our lives. From using Netflix for entertainment to using Facebook or Instagram for social connections or using a Zoom/Google Chat for meeting online… The common global media landscape means parenting imperatives across the world have now far more in common than ever. Hence, the guidance we seek and the most credible ones available can be taken from a global context too.”
- Last year, the WHO announced a set of screen-time guidelines as part of a guidance document on play needs.
- “In my experience,” adds Amita, “the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has the most comprehensive guidelines on use of media for children by age and stage.” She has discussed their guidelines for children between 0-5 years here and 5-18 years here.
- There is a distinction to be made between sedentary screen time, the use of a screen or electronic device while sitting down—watching TV or videos, playing digital games (online or offline)—and non-sedentary screen time, where the child may be moving to music or following along on an yoga tutorial.
- Also, there is a distinction between types of content for sedentary consumption: reading an e-book together or video chat with a friend or family member is different from watching videos or playing games.
Common recommendations for healthy limits:
- The most important aspect of screen time limits is not the absolute permissible amount, but the impact screen time has on sleep and activity needs, and other developmental imperatives.
- In general, for younger children especially, sedentary time of reading or listening to stories told by a caregiver rather than using a device—even for stories and rhymes—is much preferred.
Key recommendations for ages 0–5 years:
- No screen time until 2 years old per the WHO, or at least until 18 months old, per the AAP.
- For 2-year-olds and older, aim for sedentary screen time of no more than an hour; less is best.
- When your child is watching, make sure you watch with them—react to what’s happening, describe it, discuss it with them (pause the video if you want to!), and continue discussing later, relating it to real-life contexts.
- Aim for slow-moving content, with slower speech, slower scene changes as well as less zipping and zapping—think Sesame Street, Tumbleleaf, Tilly and Friends, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Sarah & Duck, Kipper, Puffin Rock, Storybots rather than Mickey & Donald, Peppa Pig or Spongebob Squarepants.
Key recommendations for ages 5–10 years:
- Designate media-free times and spaces—for example, for older children, you might say no digital media an hour or two before bedtime, or you might restrict media consumption to the living area and not have personal devices or TVs in bedrooms; for all ages, you might have a ‘no media devices at mealtimes’ rule. (Note that such family rules will only succeed if adults are modelling them assiduously too. Amita’s family rules take everyone’s interests and needs into consideration: “No media beyond 9pm on weekdays but weekend could feature an afternoon movie or even a late-night show that everyone can collectively enjoy.”)
- For children under 10, limit sedentary screen time to about 1.5 hours a day—ideally not all at once!
- Keep the screen about two feet away, or at arm’s length for online classes and similar watching uses.
- Set up a reminder system to look away from all near work, screen or no screen—alarms can be a timer, bookmarked pages, video game level-ups used as reminders to look out of the window…
- Don’t have a child watching all alone; social interaction and scaffolding are important here.
Key recommendations for ages 11–18 years:
- For adolescents, about 5 hours is a generous limit, keeping in mind the need for social interaction, physical activity, (other sorts of) learning time and adequate sleep—which is anyway a special challenge for teenagers, since the body clock goes into night owl mode because of hormonal activity in this high-growth period.
- Remind them to blink while watching movies, etc.
- Work with them so they set up their own routine and reminders for screen breaks
- Make sure everyone puts away their phones and tablets to charge in the common area, not the bedroom, before bedtime.
- Trust them to make their own choices—but teach them how to make good calls (more on that below).
Remember, these are guidelines and even in normal times—much less the universally stressful and unusual pandemic context—not dogmas to be followed to the letter. Instead, think of what our children need to thrive—adequate time to sleep, eat, play, socialise, learn, maintain their emotional well-being (which includes parents and other caregivers interacting with them to fill their cups). Then see how media use helps or harms these imperatives:
- If the only way they see grandma is over Facetime, that’s not where you need to set a limit
- Likewise, in the Covid-19 situation, if they are only meeting friends online, again, that need not be a hard limit. Just try and nudge them to play games that get them moving together, maybe, or have a music concert or a dance-off?
Amita notes: “For me, the most valuable insight from these guidelines is that we parents worry far more about the time and much less on the type of content consumed.”
If we know all this, then what stops us from implementing it?
We know it isn't good for them, yet we see toddlers in the park and in the doctor's office and at the school gate peering into a mobile while parents work on their own devices—or just space out for a few precious minutes, even, on the metro or the bus.
Caregiving can be exhausting, especially for grandparents and even for younger adults who may have work to contend with—an uncommonly common scenario in the pandemic. So we often to use a screen as a nanny to keep children occupied at home.
Another tough nut is when other adults at home, or even older children, want to watch something inappropriate for younger children—and this is playing in a shared space, or even a bedroom where the children are playing too.
The solution lies in brainstorming alternatives that honours the whole family's needs and negotiates with their wants:
- For the older generation, in the first place, communicate what you know about the adverse impact of media. It’s not the eyes alone!
- The AAP notes that using media as the only way to calm a child can lead to problems with limit setting or leave children ill-equipped to develop their own emotional regulation.
- It is okay to have another adult babysit the child (preschool and above) through the screen if you are going spare trying to do it all, all by yourself.
- Schedule children’s outdoor times, homework hours, boardgame time to match the adults’ serial timings in case you want them to keep their focus elsewhere.
- Limit your own binge-watching inclinations. Amita limits her own TV time to 45 minutes at a stretch, and then resists the temptation to stream the next episode. “After this, I spend time with my daughter reading a book, chatting before bedtime. If we expect self-control from our children, we need to set the example ourselves,” she says.
- Challenge your beliefs about children not being whiny or bored. That is normal development! Neither is a reason to turn on the TV or hand over the screen, unless you feel you have to physically intervene in what they are getting up to—that’s typically only till preschool or so. But for older children, you can calmly and empathetically tune out the whining with headphones if you have work you need to be doing.
- Similarly, don’t less ‘mess’ daunt you from letting children play with their whole bodies—as they are meant to do.
- Screencast viewing to a TV for easier adult supervision and better physical distancing than you get with a personal device
Often you have to balance different requirements, and like we have said in other parenting contexts, choose your hill to die on: Amita and her husband enjoy watching a particular series on Netflix, and during this time, their daughter watches a mythological show with her grandfather on the other TV. “I don’t find the show to be high-quality programming for a 6-year-old (for that matter, even adults!),” she says, “but it’s one time in the day that both my daughter and my father-in-law look forward to and. in the interest of their emotional bond, I let go of the content.”
What about quality of content, then? How do we judge if it's good for our kids?
What is age-appropriate and can we really trust the ratings on TV programs and apps? After all, we see objectionable content even on apps like YouTube Kids; we see rudeness in content developed for children too young to even judge or have the self-control to mimic the heroes but not the villains. Even for older children, there are heroes—never mind the villains—using bad language and resorting to bullying, or being otherwise poor role models. And then there’s sports stars behaving badly… And all this long before they are old enough to idolize a musician or a movie star’s real-life excesses.
“As the variety and number of screens have increased,” notes Amita, “the concept of family TV time has also really gone out of the window. Media creators have been working to fill in the growing demand for more private-viewing formats instead of family-friendly formats.” But you really have to know what your children are watching—don’t let them start on a new show unless you have vetted it first.
Here are some aspects Amita is careful to consider, in addition to the ratings you might see marked on a programme sheet (which can be a good starting point). Remember, you know your child’s sensitivity and maturity better than the general guidelines can predict:
- What is the kind of language spoken in the show—watch for ungrammatical language, swear words, or even a generally rude or disrespectful tone of voice (and not just from the villains)?
- How about gender roles? Does it show boys and girls behaving in stereotypical ways? Are the male characters shown as aggressive, lone heroes, always leading the action, whereas the female characters are passive, focused on looking good, on bonding, or typically doing what they are told? Remember this shapes not only our children’s understanding of their own social roles but also how should they be looking at and treating their siblings or friends of other genders. (Bonus points if a show is gender-inclusive enough to show atypical gender expression—be it a boy ballerina or a girl mechanic, or a non-binary character of any description)
- Look out for sexually explicit content and assess if your child is ready to be watching it. Even with teens, watch out for sexual objectification, sexual violence, informed consent, and have conversations around these—that’s like a discussion, please note, not lectures.
- Violence is a big problem, especially with video games, and research shows that violent content could increase aggression in children and impact their ability to look at others with empathy and sensitivity. It’s highly avoidable for younger kids and even with older ones it’s important to have conversations. (At the same time, growing empathy in real life can actually nullify the effect of violence in gaming!)
- Several studies link viewing content that includes drinking, doing drugs and smoking with under-age substance use and abuse. Children tend to imitate and see characters as role models, so they may think it to be cool. Parental guidance is especially important here. Note that older Disney content even has no holds bar for pipes and cheroots, from Uncle Scrooge to Mickey himself! The TV schedule is even murkier for teens and young adults—and that worsens with music videos and social media as well.
- Turn off autoviewing on your Youtube app or streaming platforms (this stops it from automatically loading up the next video or next episode of a series).
- For younger children especially, and also those more sensitive—examples include a child prone to eye fatigue, migraine or sensory overwhelm—be wary of colour saturation, fluctuating decibels and fast-moving visuals too.
- For older children, realise it’s not possible to track your child’s every movement and you need to give them space, and trust their choices—even as you work to discuss and inform those choices. And that trust has to be a two-way street, based on your overall relationship. “Does the child feel confident to share with their parents if something bothers them or goes wrong?” asks Amita. “Does the parent have an open channel of communication with their child? I think it’s better for us as parents to think of ways to nurture our relationship with our children, to build a safe, non-judgmental space and think deeply about values that matter to us as a family. This is easier said than done.”
- Balance automated parental controls with your own active guidance.
- At a basic level, for young children, block websites and filter inappropriate content:
- Install a content filter on your web browser, such as Google Safesearch, to help block explicit results, including pornography.
- Check your operating system’s settings—Apple phones, tablets and iPods, Amazon’s Prime Video, Netflix, Microsoft, even Google can all help you set your own family-friendly limits.
- Use YouTube Kids for the youngest children, and also supervise their use of it. (Personally, I did not—we watched a lot of documentaries rather than targeted children's content, so it made better sense for us!)
- Keep your growing child informed of tools and strategies you use—it should not become an underhanded invasion of privacy. My 7-year-old, for example, is aware that I can see their YouTube use history when they browse alone for Lego building videos.
“It’s important to discuss what you are monitoring with your children and secure their consent. It’s important to respect them as individuals, accommodate their need for privacy and communicate that we trust them. Putting children under surveillance without having a conversation can backfire, and anyway gives the parent a false illusion of safety,” as Amita says.
Both Amita and I are fond of Common Sense Media for discover quality programming, as it offers age-based media reviews for families, with media vetted by both children and parents. (It covers books and games too, and yes, YouTube channels, apps, TV and movies.)
What about media use for creation, rather than consumption?
The evidence has been mixed on the effects and uses of passive vs active screentime—and some of the emerging research is startling, such as video games having a positive educational effect but negative effects on health and socialisation.
While creating their own content—be it art, music, or writing their own graphic novel—offers an opportunity to children for self-expression, to be imaginative and creative, Amita warns, “It’s important to keep in mind that we think differently when we write or draw with our hands versus how we do it using computer keys.”
- A story typed out on the tablet is welcome, but writing in a journal is also encouraged.
- Sketching and free-hand drawing are still a valuable step for designers and architects and helps children develop fine-motor skills, eye-hand coordination and their neural networks.
“Consuming content—like consuming food—is a matter of what you are ingesting (is it junk or nutritional?),” says Amita, but adds that too much healthy food, beyond your nutritional needs, is not a good idea either, and nor is excessive reliance on digital for creative pursuits.
Often we believe the device or the technology to be inert in itself, without realising how it changes the very process of thinking. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, the “medium is the message” at times.
Plus, when it comes to affecting sedentary habits and quality of sleep, all screentime has a similar deleterious effect. (Tip: Keep 'night mode' or 'eye protection mode' on at all times, if your device has it, to cut down the disruptive blue-light radiation.)
So when do they venture into the whole wide world of the Internet?
For social media forums, I can't do better here than quote Amita wholesale: "Nearly all platforms have prescribed the minimum age to be 13 years. Yet a lot of children are getting their own phones by age 10 and accessing the internet independently by 7–10 years of age."
What's the right thing for you to do, for your family? Amita says as parents, we need to upgrade our own understanding of the changing digital worlds: "Think of accessing the internet as driving through digital highways. Ask yourself:
- Are your children ready to navigate these highways by themselves?
- What are the difficulties and potential dangers on the way?
- Can they stay focused on where they set out for or will they be pulled into endless distractions of shiny pit stops (think YouTube, think Instagram).
- Do they know which roads to avoid, and will they know how to find their way out if someone told them the wrong directions or worse deliberately misled them?
- Will they drive responsibly or could peer pressure get the better of them (bullying, sexting)?
- At the end of the day, will they trust you to share the rough ride they had or more likely to end up in a big accident one day? Do you think it's better to be in the driving seat and show them the way first?
- Are you, the parent, yourself familiar with the different digital roads and do you drive responsibly yourself?
- How can you use GPS to help your children navigate better? They are likely to turn it off if you use it only to track them!
So, as you can see, timing and extent of Internet access is something highly dependent on the individual child’s impulsivity and maturity, but here are some basic guidelines:
- For browsing, remember even a very young child can “speak” to Siri or Alexa or Google; install parental controls! (more on that below)
- Actively teach them to use the internet for finding reliable information—and discuss why you choose to click a particular link and not others in the search results.
- Wrap your tech in sturdy covers instead of yelling about spills or breakage after the fact—falls are inevitable, accidents will happen.
- Think hard about social media access—before you hand your child your phone to WhatsApp a friend, consider what the group’s photos and messages will show her, and whether she is ready to make decisions about what is apt to share and what isn’t. (I’d say, until you hear evidence in conversations that they know what privacy means for the whole family, you’re better off not handing over freedom to text and send photos.)
- Do not circumvent rules of various platforms to set up email accounts, social media accounts etc too early.
- Make sure your online transactions are protected from access! You do not want your child to inadvertently or thoughtlessly buy things, whether virtual coins in a game or a bunch of books you had not budgeted for.
- Bookmark their favourite sites for easy access, and you may deter wandering while they are younger, at least.
- Use reading view, where available, to block out ads and sidebars (parental controls typically cannot filter for these, and they are everywhere, even new sites).
- On smart devices, control website access and indeed wi-fi access, and turn off purchase permissions (or require a password/key). An Apple device can also, for example, be set to prevent screen recording
- Apply restrictions on Alexa, Siri, Google as required for your child’s age group when they have independent access.
- Have a blanket ban on sharing pictures and videos without adult supervision.
- Teach your child that talking to ‘screennames’ is the same as talking to strangers—similar rules of caution apply, and personal information should not be revealed.
- Equally, teach them the same courtesies apply as in real life. The anonymity of the internet is not permission to be rude.
- You’ll have to see when they are old enough to not click links announcing prizes and other excitement!
To what extent do we relax the rules for the pandemic though?
We are certainly living in desperately “interesting” times, no doubt about that. “Before the pandemic, playtime meant meeting your friends in the park, family time meant visiting your grandparents or loved ones every weekend, studying meant going to school. Today, screens have become the only means to fulfil many of these needs, which are crucial for our well-being,” acknowledges Amita.
So again, while you might need to actually use the screen to encourage activity and socialization, for a change, it becomes even more critical to choose purposeful use of the screen.
- Think hard about the goals you are achieving in using the screen, and whether there are other ways to achieve it:
- Can you do socially distanced community yoga on your balconies or terrace together with neighbours, or is it better that your child follows a kids’ yoga video than get no activity at all?
- Can a story be heard as an audiobook rather than read on a device, if it is just for a bit of naptime/bedtime entertainment while you desperately rush towards your deadline—or will it help your budding reader further their reading skills to have ebooks instead of the library?
- “If you are a media-conservative parent, we do need to be less rigid in defining screentime,” says Amita.
- Just avoid using it as a digital nanny. “In my personal experience I have seen that excessive and continuous use of screens impact us all whether children or adults, it leaves us feeling fatigued, overwhelmed and irritable,” warns Amita.
- Space out the digital experiences. Both Amita and I insist on a screentime break after online classes for our children—an hour in her case, three hours in mine.
When will my school-aged child be ready for their first phone?
Some parents start by passing on their own older phone to their child when they upgrade. Often the child is used to a smartphone already—especially in our Covid-19 context—and might prefer the device they are already used to. But is that the best bet for independent use? We think not.
Most experts suggest your child should not get a smartphone till they are on the threshold of teenage: 12–13 years. Which experts, you ask? Well, Bill Gates’ kids all waited till they were 14 years old. James P. Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, insists his kids wait till they are mature enough to first prize face-to-face communication and can exercise restraint. Also, as Amita points out, “Adolescents are getting set to develop an independent understanding and interaction with the outside world. Yet, cyber-bullying, sexual bullying and mental health problems are most rampant among teenagers and it’s important to have an open channel of conversations and guidance from parents.” Some children may be particularly vulnerable, depending on their neurology too.
So what about the younger child going on playdates after school or to the playground downstairs independently? We say, ideally the child should have at least one adult present at all times: for playground gatherings, can parents take turns to supervise—from a distance, and with minimal intervention in their interactions; for playdates, surely an adult at home will have a phone or there is a landline everyone can use?
If you still think your primary-school child needs a phone—perhaps they use public transport, or a chauffeur drives them to school and back—then Amita’s recommendation is “a simple feature phone that works only for communication.” (Note that children on a school bus are in the care of the school staff; they don’t need to communicate with you independently; the adults can contact you if needed.)
Features to consider in your child’s first phone:
- Big icons for young eyes
- Big buttons for young hands, if you can (an example is the Easyfone, designed for senior citizens, but equally apt for juniors)
- Prepaid plan
- Low-cost carrier, until they learn their limits, never mind how slowly
Personally, I love the brick-like sturdiness of a Nokia 3310. They really are virtually indestructible—and the company supports recycling in India. Less mainstream, but designed for children is the Easyfone, with location tracking, restricted caller list, photo buttons for calling the important people in their lives, help button, auto call-back (so your child can’t really ignore your call!), a listen-in feature that allows you to check on your child’s conversations without actively calling them (meaning you can eavesdrop on playground chatter or conversations with a nanny—and I honestly don’t know that I like the sound of this aspect), and reminders (useful for medications, for instance). Major ownside? It is an obvious ‘baby phone’, and older kids may baulk at it for fear of peer judgement.
Resources for further research and reading:
Manidipa Mandal is a seven-year-old parent still learning about parenting. She also likes to read and write about ecology, biology (especially gender), food and travel.