Melanie Cole (Host): Today’s children are growing up immersed in digital media. They are, and it can have both positive and negative effects on their healthy development. My guest is Dr. Phil Boucher, he’s a pediatrician with Lincoln Pediatric Group. Dr. Boucher, what’s happening with our kids in the digital world, and do you think that it’s making them smarter? More worldly? Is it positive and negative? What do you think is going on out there?
Dr. Philip Boucher, MD (Guest): You know, in the past couple years, we have just seen such an explosion of not only social media but devices and ways to interact for kids, and I think we as pediatricians are trying to catch up and figure out what is best for our children, what are the best ways that they can experience media?
Melanie: What age do you think, as a pediatrician, that we should start letting our children use technology. I mean it used to be screen time, Dr. Boucher, and the AAP would say not under two, and then not two hours. But now it’s a little different, and you can be in a restaurant and see a little kid holding a phone or a tablet or something. How do you think we should be starting our children in technology?
Dr. Boucher: I think that for young children, we’re talking children under the age of eighteen months or so, that I would use screens as sparingly as possible. Sometimes older siblings will be watching TV or something like that, and they get exposed to it then, but I would try and be as cognizant and really try and keep children under the age of a year and a half from screens as much as possible. I think that as kids get older, as they get closer to age two, that you can start to introduce screen and be very consistent and also very thoughtful about what types of digital media children are exposed to. Giving a kid a cellphone at a restaurant to help them wait for their food, I think things like that are okay, that’s not a big deal. I worry more when kids are at home, and instead of playing outside, or playing with their parent, they’re just plopped in front of the TV or given a tablet. Those are times where I think there’s a much better opportunity for the parents to either engage or just allow the child to be bored rather than to be distracted.
Melanie: Screen time has changed over the years, Dr. Boucher. It used to be TV, and now with computers, boy, the kids- you know, a lot of their homework is on computer, most of it actually, and so not only that, but they’re not really watching as much TV. It’s YouTube, and they’re on Instagram, and SnapChat, and all of these things. So how do we define screen time now, and what’s changed in some of these guidelines because screen time has changed?
Dr. Boucher: Yes, you’re totally right. In the past, you know it was two hours of screen time a day, and that was a really easy recommendation because people just had VCRs, and were watching movies, and that was the way children were being exposed to screens. Nowadays, as you said, a lot of kids – if we set the two-hour limit – a lot of them before lunchtime at school would have already hit their two-hour limit because they’re doing homework on screens, there’s even Chromebooks in the classroom. And so I think the way that we have to look at it, rather than a specific number of hours per day, is what types of media the children are using. So I kind of think of it similar to the old food pyramid guidelines, and there are things that we should have sparingly, and there are things that we should have that fill our plate more so.
So if we’re talking about what are the fats and sweets of screen time use, I think about just mindless show watching, where you’re just kind of- the kid sits in front of the TV and watches cartoons and that sort of programming, which is okay if the parents need to make dinner, or the child just needs a break, and you want to give them a little bit of time to watch their favorite show, that’s fine.
Below that on the food pyramid I would think of watching shows with your child, which is better because you’re able to engage with the child. Instead of them just sitting there, you can enjoy the programming with them. You can say to the child, “What would you do if that happened to you?” Or, “What do you think she’s going to do next?” as a way to carry on a conversation and get their wheels turning while they’re watching something fun.
Below that, and even better, would be games where they’re able to have some education. So games where they can either learn something, or solve puzzles, something that engages their mind and makes them think. So if we’re breaking up the media time, I would allow more time in those sorts of activities than I would in the mindless show watching.
For older kids, like you said, there’s Instagram and Snap Chat, and a million other social media platforms, and I think being very careful about how much time you allow your child to have on those is critical, and making sure that they aren’t replacing all of their interaction with the peers and friends with online interaction.
Melanie: So let’s go back to the teens for a minute, because this seems to be the toughest group right now. I mean they’re worldly, they’re smart, they’re able to really communicate with kids all over the world through this type of technology, but should parents- you mentioned we should be judicious, and we should look. Should we start from a place of trust? Dr. Boucher, should we be friends with them on Facebook? Should we look at their Snap Chats and their Instagram? Do we do that, or do we trust them until we hear different?
Dr. Boucher: I would definitely have a very close eye on their screen time use, especially in the early tween years where they’re developing a lot of habits that they might have for the rest of their lifetime in terms of screen time and the way they interact with others online. The rules that I share with parents around that age, usually I start at eight or nine because unfortunately some parents give their kids cellphones way too early. The rules that I share with them are that parents should know their passwords and be able to look at their phone at any time, that all their devices should sleep, meaning charge somewhere else other than their bedroom so they’re not having their phone as their alarm clock, they’re not getting notifications overnight, because then they’ll get poor sleep, and that we should be using our screens in public places in the house. So in the family room, or at the kitchen table. We shouldn’t go into our room, close the door, and be on our screen. And most parents have a very positive reaction to that because they’re trying to figure out, like you said, how to give their child some autonomy and also protect them from some of the dangers that exist with social media.
The other thing that I really try and impress upon parents is that you have to be a model for what social media and screen use you want for your child. So if I as a parent tell them to get off their screens, but then I’m getting notifications at the dinner table, and looking at my phone, and pulling my phone out when we’re having family time, that’s modeled for the child how to engage in social media and use their devices.
So I think it’s very important to have time where we say no phones, and we put them in a basket, and we put them in a different room, and we sit down to dinner, and we have a nice conversation, and nobody’s getting notifications or hearing text message dings. We have to model self-control as parents and say, “Okay, I’m going to put my phone on silent so we can talk and relax in peace and watch this program together, or read books, or go play outside.” It’ll sound almost like bragging from the parents like, “Look at me, I’m turning my phone off,” but that lets the child realize where your time and what’s important to you is.
Dr. Boucher: I also think it’s helpful to make sure that the notifications that we’re getting as parents, I think making sure that we’re not getting constant text message notifications really helps our children to see, “Well my dad does have to use his phone sometimes, but it’s not all the time, and he doesn’t respond instantly to every text message and jump out of his chair to go see who’s texting him.” You set your notifications so that when you’re at home you’re not getting every email, or every Facebook message, or every tweet, or every text. You’re getting stuff from people that you need to be in contact with, family members and people that you want to be able to get immediate notification from, but most people I’m protected from. I’m not being exposed to every text message and email 24/7.
Melanie: Really an important point about the role modeling, because especially even in cars. At dinner and in cars, you don’t want to be texting and then tell your kids that they’re not allowed to text and drive. So I mean that whole phone thing is really also about what they see the parents doing. So what would you like parents to know about enforcing some of this? You know, not having their chargers in their rooms, and being a good role model, and varying the types of media that these kids are exposed to. What would they ask you? What would you like to tell them? Wrap it up for us with your best advice.
Dr. Boucher: I would really like parents to- whatever you decide for your family, to sit down and write it on a piece of paper, and put it on the fridge and say, “This is our plan for screen.” It shows the children that it’s important that we have to be thoughtful about it, and we’re going to be consistent about it, and it’s not just these are the rules for the kids, but these are the family rules for screen. We have no screens at dinnertime, everyone’s phone charges in the laundry room, and model that for the children, and reinforce the importance of that so that they learn that screens are useful, screens have a lot to offer us, but there are more important ways to interact, and there are more important things to do than be consumed with our screens at all times.
Melanie: Thank you so much, Dr. Boucher, for being with us today. It’s really great information for parents to hear, and communication with our kids is key when it comes to social media and screen time. And a special thank you to our podcast partner, Union Bank and Trust. For more information on healthy living, please visit www.bryanHealth.org. That’s www.bryanHealth.org. This is Bryan Health Podcast, I’m Melanie Cole, thanks so much for tuning in.