The battle between kids and screens: What's a parent to do?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends placing "consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of ...
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The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends placing "consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media".

The battle began almost as soon as our daughters got home from school.

"Daddy?" asked Madeline, our 8-year-old. "Could I use the iPad to watch 'Bunk'd' on Netflix?" Within minutes, she and her 6-year-old sister, Lily, were arguing over whose turn it was to choose a show.

Having been parents for nearly a decade, my wife and I have what seem like a million toys, a bazillion crayons and other colouring tools, and a library-level of books around our home.

Yet nothing, and I mean nothing, grabs their attention and pulls them in like a screen.

Our daughters know how to use the Comcast Xfinity voice commands to pull up Netflix without having to switch to our Apple TV. They know how to bring up iPad apps from Nickelodeon and Disney just as easily as I knew how to get up and walk the exhausting three metres or so from our sofa to turn the knob on our 19-inch Sony Trinitron TV back in the day.

But, back then, the only screen in the house was the TV, and it had just a few channels. 

Then there are the other screens. Tablets, smartphones, and actual computers. There is no end to what our kids can watch, and how they can watch it, whether we want them to or not.

And all one has to do is speak with other parents to see that the methods of addressing the role of technology in children's lives are not cut and dried. Here's a rundown of how several parents handle their children's use of streaming TV and movies, smartphones and tablets, and whether they use content controls and allow access to social media.

SCREEN TIME

I will admit it: My wife and I need screens. Sometimes, the TV or the iPad is the only way we can keep our daughters preoccupied enough so that we can make dinner, clean up and do what is necessary to keep our home from falling down around us.

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But we try to not let those devices rule us. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends placing "consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media". It's a standard that places responsibility on parents to set the guidelines for their children.

"I have a hard and fast rule: no screens of any sort until your responsibilities are done," said self-described "tech curmudgeon" Rachel Estrella, mother of son Kai, 12, and 8-year-old daughter Bailey.

Shauna Finian said her children, Charlotte, 11, and Jack, 7, normally aren't allowed any screen time during the school week. However, Finian said that there are exceptions to the family's rules.

"Charlotte sometimes needs to do homework on the computer, whether it's writing a paper or doing research," Finian said. "We occasionally make exceptions for a nature programme."

WHEN TO GET A PHONE (OR A TABLET)

My 8-year-old is already asking when she can have her own cellphone. My wife and I are holding out on getting her one out of fear that once she has a cellphone, it will be game over for interacting with her parents.

But, cellphones today are necessary parts of life. That means parents have to decide when and how to let their children use a device that is a portal for information and communication, which requires some responsibility.

"When you're talking about an 8-year-old, I would be careful," said Larry Magid, chief executive of ConnectSafely.org. "But, get to around 11 or 12, things change and a phone may depend on the maturity of their child."

"I knew he would need one (a smartphone) once he got to high school because it's a whole different context," Estrella said about her son. "He would actually need to call me using a cellphone and would find himself unsupervised in ways that he simply wasn't during elementary school."

HOW MUCH SOCIAL IS OK?

The pitfalls of social media - from simply spending too much time on a site, to the spreading of lies about someone, or outright bullying - can give parents pause about whether to allow their children to have such a public presence online.

"What I get most concerned about with technology is the ways in which social media can cause harm," Estrella said. "It can do a world of good, but I think that kids really need to have some rules around it particularly because things can get out of control fast."

Mavis Scanlon said she doesn't let her 8-year-old daughter, Dakota, have Facebook or other social media accounts. "I'll hold out for social media accounts for as long as possible, while we continue to try and teach her about being safe online," she said.

As for my own kids, for now, Facebook is out, Twitter is also a no-go, and I don't even know what to do with Snapchat, so I just avoid that one entirely.

They're going to have to wait a few more years for their own phones, too. And by that time, who knows? Virtual reality goggles are coming around.

By then, maybe the smartphone will be as obsolete as turning the channel knob on that old 19-inch Sony Trinitron in my parents' living room.

 - MCT

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