Healthy Family Media Diets

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Last week new research came out around screen-time for preschoolers and I spoke on TVNZ Breakfast about screen-time for children. It is an issue that will be ongoing for our life-time and now media and screens are everywhere – there is no escaping it (as I type this blog on my lap top!).

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There are two sides to the question of how much time should children engage in media. The first being that there are times we need it AND children are growing up with it so we don’t want to deprive them of it. Equally, there is consistent research to show increased show that screen time is associated with low physical activity levels (and the subsequent raft of long-term health implications of this, including obesity) and new findings showing cognitive implications especially in regards to decreased language development, social skills and creativity. The relationship between children’s free play, screen time and health risk factors (including obesity) I investigated in great detail in my doctoral thesis (first published article is here for anyone that would like a read).

So how do we as parents guide our children through this?

Cultivating a healthy media diet is a way that parents and families can approach this. Here are some suggestions which could be a place to start:

1.Create a healthy media plan – As you know I am big on planning (you can read my previous blogs on meal planning here). Like all good diets, you need a plan to guide you, and this also helps to remove parents from the role of ‘enforcers’ as it is all in the plan – for children that are old enough (about 3 and above) engaging them in the creation of the plan can really help them feel involved and is a way to include their needs too.

2.Guidelines – Current guidelines state that children under two years should not have screen-time and those at school should have 2 hours maximum outside of school.  It is also key to break up the screen-time. From an activity point of view this is crucial as there is a very separate physiological response in the body when you are sedentary which as soon as this is broken (e.g. standing, stretching) this immediately changes. Of course putting this in action is where the challenge lies – just know you are not alone in this!

3.Quality over quantity – In a world where media is everywhere focusing on the quality of media our children (and ourselves!) watch is really important. From a scientific standpoint several papers have sighted a way to assess the quality of media is to look at four well-recognised pillars of learning; engagement, meaning, interaction and social connectivity. It is hard as media is typically very unregulated but this may help! You may find that children will spend less time watching educational media  as it does require more concentration – so can help with the quantity side!

4. Turn it off/don’t have it available – I know this is really hard….it’s just like chocolate. The less you have in the house the better. And you will need to just turn it off and hide the remote (and then brace yourself for the highly inevitable crying/tantrums/winging). It will stop eventually….generally! We have not yet got our boys an iPad nor do we have normal TV at home mainly as my husband and I don’t watch it but we do have a TV that plays movies and you-tube. I know we won’t be able to protect our boys forever and I still worry about how much media they see.

5. Media-free times – Choose some times/places which are non-negotiable for being media free e.g. the bedroom, mornings, at meal times, just before bed – and try to keep as consistent as possible with this.

6. Engage – Often children use media on their own but engaging with children makes the activity social, interactive and with any luck open the lines of communication. I know it’s easier said then done but it is also rewarding (I have learnt a lot about dinosaurs in the last few weeks as a result of looking up dinosaurs with Master 3!)

7. Save your media time – If you know there are times you desperately need it, save it for then e.g. trying to cook dinner and you need to be able to work in the kitchen without children hanging off you!

8. Flexibility – like all diets, your media diet will change – according to children’s ages, their capabilities, needs – this is something you will want to keep open about and adjust your plan accordingly.

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9. Focus on what children can do – this can help to minimise the battle and turn children’s minds around to other options they have. Plus when we constantly focus on what they can’t this is all they hear!. Something I have been really excited to come across is My Fun Box. As a busy working mum I do not have loads of time to source new craft ideas, or go to various shops to find creative activities. With My Fun Box all this work and thought is done for you and delivered to your door each month! The activities are short with the right amount of engagement for little minds! Be sure to check out their website.

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10. Encourage free play – this is a whole entire topic in itself but cultivating a culture at home where free play is encouraged can also help to take the focus off media – getting them outside especially!

The topic of screen time and media use in our little ones is a really big topic!! One I am sure we will touch on regularly especially as new research comes out and of course our lives become increasingly media orientated.

Love to hear your thoughts and things that work for your families!

xxx Dr Julie Bhosale

(Photo credit to Kerry Howard Photography)