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Somehow, my wife and I have made it through 27 months of virtually no screen time for our daughter. We thought we were doing what's best for her, but we're starting to fear it's going to come back and bite us. To elaborate...

My question is spurred by the fact that recently I let her use my phone on a video chat with Grandma and I had it locked completely down so she couldn't do anything. This was the first time we had tried this, and after the call ended she carried my phone around for a half an hour refusing to part with it. When I finally insisted on getting it back, it was the ultimate meltdown of her young life. Both my wife and I were stunned. It was not her first video chat, but the first chat where she got to hold the device solely herself. She could not manipulate the phone so to speak as all the controls were off, including the touchscreen.

She sees her parents, other adults, and some kids with electronics that she is not allowed to see or hold, though she desperately wants to. By keeping screens from her so stringently, is she more likely to be obsessed with screen time later? Would she be better off now if they had been a small part of her daily life from the get go?

  • You say you had your phone "locked down" for a video chat. Does that mean this was the first time you did a video chat with Grandma with your daughter? Or was this the first time your daughter got to hold/manipulate the phone while on video chat with Grandma? Put another way, was this your daughter's first video chat ever? It's not really clear the way your question is written right now. – Greg Hewgill Aug 5 at 20:52
  • Thank you. It was not her first video chat, but the first chat where she got to hold the device solely herself. She could not manipulate the phone so to speak as all the controls were off, including the touchscreen. – Syrinx_Temple Aug 6 at 0:47
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    Have you considered getting her a toy phone of her own (by toy, I mean a toy that looks like a phone with buttons to push, etc.) – anongoodnurse Aug 6 at 0:58
  • @anongoodnurse: Your suggestion in the comment worked for us too. I think it is a great answer in itself. – Timur Shtatland Aug 6 at 2:00
  • @Syrinx_Temple (rush?) Anyway, the meltdown probably isn't related to screen time, it is related to her getting older and you're starting the first battles of who is in control. I'd strongly suggest you review questions about establishing authority with young children and the benefits of a loving and structured world for your child to grow up in. – Adam Heeg Aug 6 at 16:05
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I took a different approach but probably not very different in age with my kids. I left an ipad in plain sight and let them do whatever they wanted with it. It had restrictions for in app purchases, but left open otherwise and treated as though it was exactly what an ipad is - useless garbage. I'm exaggerating a little, but in my experience the tablets really did nothing except give them something to watch while eating. I didn't want them to believe this thing was special, or desirable, or a treat to be earned. I wanted them to see it like they see candy in our house. Like it was nothing special. I leave candy out readily available with zero restrictions. Always have. The psychological approach to this is to devalue the appeal of unhealthy obsessions early so they can be left in trust without over use or breakdowns or what. And so far we have been exceptionally successful on that front.

Here it is now some 6 years later and as we believed would come to be, the ipads are not a crutch for the kids. They do like them, but they don't over abuse them. They play well in all other ways and treat the ipads like they treat candy - like they're nothing special. The biggest part of our molding with these devices was to use them with the kids, explain things, and not get all excited about any of it. It would be very difficult to recollect every nuance of our ipad and candy history, but it suffices to say whatever our own goals were, we managed to achieve them and are very happy with our kids abilities to use technology and not obsess over them.

There's a lot of discussion many have with concepts of screen time limitations, circadian rhythms, addiction, etc. I have always considered those discussions to be grasping at straws. People trying to brand themselves as authorities on the subject. Like many things, I take it all with a grain of salt and conduct my own experiments. I am happy with my own results.

This is not to say they are wrong. Just that you don't need to live a stereotype where you adhere to the popular method and just trust "experts" over your own ability to observe and react. After all, this is your child. You know them best. And while there may be a certain degree of axiomatic science behind many claims, they are also applied to one of the most diverse mysteries of history - the human mind as it adapts with the times around it.

That is to say we are moving fast in an age of technology. Screens are inevitable. Responsible use is mandatory. You should teach your kid and play with them in all ways with technology the same way you would not just assume they will learn to ride a bike or drive a car alone. A little discussion, questions, answers, and the joy of mystery in life can clear a path to - if nothing else - a slightly more emotionally balanced approach to the bright and shiny.

I disagree to this trend of "no screen time" as you have stated because I do believe what you said in the last part of your question is true: "By keeping screens from her so stringently, is she more likely to be obsessed with screen time later?"

Yes, I believe that may be the case. But it is not just screen time. It is anything you adamantly reject as an option for their free minds to explore. People tend to fixate on the "off limits" and when they get little doses it might be very hard for them to understand why they can't just have it all the time.

I'll probably be the outcast in this matter of opinion - and it is just that - my opinion which is based on my own history and success in circumventing unwanted attraction to items of common addiction. I am not a medical doctor, not a psychologist. I just observe and adapt like many of us out there and this ramble is what I have come to find in my tenure as a parent. Hopefully it is useful to someone.

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We were concerned about similar screen time issues. I have not seen scientific studies about long-term (many years) effects of video chat on infants of such young age as 27 months or below. In my experience, here is what worked for our kids at this and younger age: a policy of limited screen time, like so:

  • FaceTime chat, Skype or similar video chat only, and for a limited time.
  • Very little or no other video (TV, YouTube, games).
  • The phone is mostly out of reach of children, for example on the table or in the hands of adults. The children hold the phone only for a very limited time. For example, they can press the button to end the chat.
  • Adults provide an example by using the phone as little as possible in the presence of children. This is difficult, but not impossible. In my experience, my own difficulty of setting the phone aside "at will" helps me better understand the importance of helping my children learn better screen time habits.
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    +1 for "Adults provide an example". Kids are not born attracted to smart phones. They want to play with it because they see their parents "play" with it all the time and find it intriguing. – learner101 Aug 6 at 7:29
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    +1 Bullet point 2 is being a little lenient, I'd stick with no other video. Also the scope of this answer should extend through teenage years with very small modifications. – Adam Heeg Aug 6 at 15:57
  • +1 @Adam Heeg: I agree on both of your points. "no other video" at this age is ideal IMO - hopefully others can reach this goal! I hesitated to extend the "scope of this answer [...] through teenage years" only because the A could then be marked as "off-topic" for "27 month old", downvoted a few times and deleted. – Timur Shtatland Aug 6 at 17:19
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The American Academy of Pediatrics has the following recommendations for screen time in children:

  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they're seeing.
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.

These recommendations are based on extensive research. The policy document, Media and Young Minds, addresses many of the reasons that impact younger children (in the age range you discuss).

In particular:

Population-based studies continue to show associations between excessive television viewing in early childhood and cognitive, language,and social/emotional delays, likely secondary to decreases in parent–child interaction when the television is on and poorer family functioning in households with high media use. An earlier age of media use onset, greater cumulative hours of media use, and non-PBS content all are significant independent predictors of poor executive functioning in preschoolers. Content is crucial: experimental evidence shows that switching from violent content to educational/prosocial content results in significant improvement in behavioral symptoms, particularly for low-income boys. Notably, the quality of parenting can modify associations between media use and child development: one study found that inappropriate content and inconsistent parenting had cumulative negative effects on low-income preschoolers’ executive function, whereas warm parenting and educational content interacted to produce additive benefits.

As the article explains (and the references in the original article go into more detail on), the key is interaction with the child. Concerns with screen time are largely based on the "television babysitter", where the parent no longer interacts with the child. Children - particularly babies under 2 - do most of their learning from interacting with people and objects, and don't really learn from a screen; so having sufficient interaction time is key to their development. The screen doesn't "hurt" them per se, but it is a proxy for removing the interaction.

As such, introducing screen time is likely fine - in fact, at > 2 years old, it may even be helpful in some ways, as the AAP notes. Introducing the right kind of screen time, meaning interactive games that require the toddler to think and make choices, can help their development. Just make sure that it isn't removing parental interaction - meaning, talking to the child, playing with the child, etc. And try to avoid "mindless" screen time when possible; while educational television can be helpful in development, and even some shows that aren't explicitly educational can be helpful for teaching social behaviors, avoid shows that are just pure entertainment - or at least not too much of those.

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