This post is in collaboration with and sponsored by Lenovo, but all thoughts are my own, unchanged and unedited.
My previous life in the NHS
For most of my time working in speech therapy, I didn’t have a child of my own.
I was clued up on child development and had clocked up hundreds of hours of theraputic play, but I had never faced the realities of that day-to-day slog of it for myself. So, looking back, I might have been a little bit judgemental as I doled out all the official advice about limiting TV and screen time.
It’s all evidence based, of course – kids who spend more than 3 hours a day watching TV have three times the risk of experiencing language delay. I worked with many children whose only words and phrases had been rote-learned from some interactive and well-intentioned tablet game. Some children would scream and panic when I asked that the TV be switched for the duration of my visit. And I would think, ‘why on earth wouldn’t you follow this advice? How hard is it to just play with your kids instead?!‘
It was only once I was stuck at home with my own bad-tempered three year old that I truly understood that the answer to that is sometimes ‘very hard‘, and what a lifeline that screen-time can be.
Plus, of course, kids are just naturally drawn to a screen – the bright colours, the movement, the music, the light. They see us, their chief role models, scrolling on our smartphones all day, and are naturally inclined to copy this. It’s a way for them to relax when they’re exhausted from play, but still mentally buzzing with curiosity. So it’s little wonder that they protest when we try to take that away!
Over the last four years I’ve been working with finding a balance in this. Orla has her own tablet, a Lenovo Tab 4, and I was keen to find ways for her to enjoy that independently, but in ways that don’t feel like they’re negatively affecting us all. Protecting both her and her developing brain, and my own conscience when I’ve got deadlines to meet and there’s nobody else to keep her entertained.
So now, based on both that decade in paediatric speech therapy, and four solid years of juggling parenting and business, I feel like I can finally speak about this with some real truth. Here are the best things I’ve found for alleviating tablet-guilt and helping a child have a healthy relationship with screen-time.
Make it creative
A lot of us feel instinctively drawn towards ‘educational’ games and apps as a way of making our kids’ tablet time feel more enriching. The problem is, these games can be incredibly formulaic. The language is repetitive, sing-song and predictable, and the child tends to learn how to complete or ‘win’ the game instead of generalising the actual skill being taught.
In fact, the same has been shown in those ‘brain training’ games pitched at adults – all players actually learn is to get better at the game, and perform no better on memory tasks elsewhere in the real world.
Creative activities tend to have more to have a much wider scope for development. Drawing on a screen develops hand-eye coordination, and navigating colour and brush menus can teach colour concepts and sizes. There are apps to build sticker scenes, create beautiful patterns or just a plain old colourful mess. The scope for vocabulary, concepts and spacial awareness is vast.
And best of all, at the end there is a copy of what your child has done, so you can sit down and revisit it with them later, and talk about what they have made.
Use the camera
It’s probably because she sees me doing it so much, but Orla has always loved to take photographs. From the time she first grabbed by mirrorless DSLR in Barcelona at age 2, she hasn’t stopped, and I keep promising myself I’ll do a blog post with some of her best captures when I get the chance!
Setting Orla loose with her Tab 4 felt a lot less precarious, and it’s a lot easier for her to use. There’s a plastic bumper to keep it durable, and a built-in kids’ mode with an easy-to-find the camera and album to review her shots. We did find that the kids’ mode defaulted to giving a square viewfinder window whilst shooting landscape, but Orla didn’t seem to mind this quite as much as her Mama 😉.
When we’ve been out for the day, Orla loves putting all of her photographs into a story together using an app like BookCreator – we can record audio and add drawings, and save them for her to look at by herself, or to send on to grandparents. I feel a whole lot happier with her flicking through a language-rick, real life based story we created together than the awful singsong princess crap she finds on YouTube! Plus, revisiting daily activities like this helps children develop an understanding of routine, form memories, and learn new vocabulary related to whatever they’ve been doing. Orla is an expert on ferns, fungus and forest-finds these days!
Set a timer
As pretty much the only tech-savvy person working in my team at the time, I was a big proponent of ‘timeout’ apps that deactivate a device after a specified time limit has passed. I first used it with children with Autistic Spectrum conditions as a way to encourage break passivity and get children to make requests from an adult, but found it just as useful for any parent who found it a battle to get their child to put their tablet down!
So I was genuinely quite excited to see the Lenovo Tab 4 comes with this option built in to their kids’ mode, so you can automatically set it to lock after a time has expired. It’s really helpful for setting clear boundaries for kids, so they can predict how long they have to watch or play, and it takes the blame and conflict out of the whole equation when it’s no longer the parent telling them to turn it off.
(Honestly, as an adult who sometimes gets a bit too lost in Pinterest or Instagram for hours at a time, I feel like we could all benefit from this feature sometimes! Can we make this universal please, Lenovo?)
Another piece of advice from my old SLT days that I’m still a bit preachy about is the importance of watching shows together with our kids. Of course, Orla has things she will watch by herself quite happily, but Rory and I both make an effort to sit with her and watch things together as much as we can as well.
We get to check in on what she’s seeing, talk about the storylines and generally just share in her world. As a bonus, I’ve rediscovered my love for The Moomins, marvelled at the number of tweenage YouTubers creating amazing content, and have been able to share all the things I watched as a child with her snuggled at my side.
Our Tab 4 has Dolby Atmos® sound so it’s actually a really nice watching experience together – no annoyingly shrill tinny sound like from our smartphones. & as we don’t actually own a TV any more, it’s just as handy to watch ourselves after Orla’s gone to bed! Don’t tell her though, please – she’s kind of propriatal about the while thing.. 🙈
This sounds obvious, but I find most of us don’t really make full use of parental control options available to us. Orla was still using the full iPlayer app until earlier this year, when I discovered her watching a football documentary she termed “grownup stuff”! 🙈
Downloading kid-specific YouTube and TV apps, limiting access to other settings and applications and setting up profiles specific for each child can go a long way to keeping our children safe online. For older, more inventive children, the accessibility features can be adapted to lock out access to certain areas of the screen and menu options too. And if your child is really young or has motor issues, features like pattern-access codes and fingerprint recognition are a great way to help them navigate the screen more independently.
Which is sort of the point here, right? Screens are here to stay, and the skills we all use navigating apps and devices like the Tab 4 are essential abilities in the digital age. Helping our children to draw healthy boundaries and use technology productively is equipping them for the future world, and gives us a shot at not winding up embarrassingly out of touch 🙈.
How do you include screen time as part of your family life? Any tips you’d like to share?
Post in collaboration with and sponsored by Lenovo, but all thoughts are my own.