Tablets as Pacifiers: Rethinking Our Relationship with Screens

Growing up in the Philippines in the 1980s, a misbehaving child might get a scolding or even a spanking. We called it discipline, and while I wouldn't choose that parenting method now, it did instill a sense of self-control in me. Today, I see a different extreme. Kids fuss or whine, and instantly, they're handed a tablet or a smartphone to quiet them down.  We seem to have traded one kind of pacifier for another.

I understand the temptation of screens – they're distracting and entertaining. But I worry that relying too heavily on them as behavior regulators may do more harm than good.  Our kids may miss out on developing crucial self-regulation skills, navigating the complex digital world, and building meaningful connections with their parents. It's true that excessive screentime has drawbacks, but let's look at the potential drawbacks of being too restrictive as well.

Screentime and Self-Regulation

Children learn self-regulation by trial and error. When we immediately shut down any emotional display with a screen, we rob them of those practice opportunities. Moderated screen time, on the other hand, can be a tool for managing impulses. Having to wait their turn for a shared tablet, choosing to stop a game after a set time, or resisting the urge to click on endless videos all exercise self-control.

Moreover, by always handing our children screens to deal with difficult emotions, we suggest to them that they can't handle boredom, frustration, or sadness without an external distraction. Real life isn't always entertaining, and children need to learn to cope with a range of emotions without always needing a digital escape route.

Screentime and Discipline

Strict screen time rules can erode the parent-child relationship. Children may perceive these limits as arbitrary or unfair, leading to resentment rather than understanding. Instead of focusing solely on restriction, parents can use screen time as a chance to teach true discipline.

Discuss the content kids are consuming, why certain apps or videos are more appropriate than others. Set screen-time limits together, explaining the reasoning behind them. Take scheduled tech breaks as a family. This collaborative approach encourages kids to make healthy choices on their own, leading to genuine self-discipline that extends beyond their devices.

The "Digital Babysitter" Problem

Using devices to calm a crying child might seem harmless in the short term. However, it has potential downsides for both emotional development and social skills. When we constantly rely on screens to soothe our kids, we miss out on vital opportunities to teach them how to understand and express their emotions. Kids need to learn to name their feelings – whether it's frustration, sadness, or anger – and develop healthy ways to process them.

Furthermore, the passive nature of excessive screen time can displace those precious in-person interactions critical for social development. Children learn how to read social cues, take turns, negotiate, and build empathy through playtime with other kids and genuine conversations with adults. While some digital media can be interactive, it cannot truly replace the richness of real-world relationships.

Let's be clear – I'm not suggesting parents should never use a tablet for a bit of peace and quiet. But let's be mindful of relying on it as our primary response to any display of challenging emotions by our children.

Towards a Healthier Approach

It's not about eliminating screens from our children's lives altogether. The key lies in a shift in how we think about them. Instead of obsessing over minutes and hours, let's prioritize the quality of their screen time experiences.

Choose educational apps and games, watch stimulating shows together, and engage in discussions about what they're seeing online. Co-viewing turns passive screen time into an opportunity for bonding and teaches critical thinking skills. Kids learn to be critical consumers of media alongside their parents.

Designate tech-free zones, such as the dinner table or bedrooms, and establish routines for non-screen activities like reading, outdoor play, or creative hobbies. These breaks help kids unwind naturally and reconnect with the offline world.

Importantly, let's be aware of our own tech habits. If we're constantly checking our phones, kids will model that behavior. Demonstrating our own ability to set healthy boundaries with our devices sets the most powerful example of all.

Preparing Our Children For The Digital World

Our children are growing up in a world where the digital and the real are intricately intertwined. The internet is a very real place, and virtual realities are becoming increasingly common. As parents, we can't simply shield them from these technologies, nor should we.  Instead of leaving them to navigate this complex space alone, our responsibility is to join them in it.

By shifting our approach to screen time from restriction to guidance, we empower our children to develop the self-regulation and critical thinking skills they need to thrive in the digital age. Let's encourage mindful consumption of technology and foster open conversations about what they encounter online.

This isn't about condoning unlimited screen use. It's about inviting ourselves into our children's digital world, demonstrating healthy habits, and empowering them to engage with technology thoughtfully.


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