Could screen time actually be GOOD for children?

We all know that screen time is bad for child development. It damages their eyes, it stalls their fine motor skills, it impacts their communication, disrupts their sleep, and it causes behavioral problems.

But what if it were actually therapeutic and BENEFITED development?

I’m going to share how screen time has positively impacted my children. As a scientist I understand that a sample size of two is not significant, and there is inherent bias being that I’m there mom (and I want the world to think I’m doing a good job in that department), but also as a scientist I understand the difference between correlation and causation. A recent study was published about the correlation between screen time and ADHD. To be fair, the authors never explicitly say that screen time causes ADHD…they just imply it pretty heavily. My hypothesis is that screen time is therapeutic for neurologically atypical kids, and therefore there is a higher correlation because it provides them more benefit. Here is my [anecdotal] reasoning:

My child had ADHD before he had screen time.
In hindsight, we saw signs that our child was not neurotypical basically from birth. Easily overstimulated, wouldn’t sleep without complete sensory deprivation, tactile defensiveness, etc. He was having significant behavior issues by age 2, and we started discussing his behavior with his pediatrician. He had no electronic toys, no tablet, just “good” toys like blocks, books, dress up clothes, etc. We would watch TV, but he’d largely ignore it in favor of playing with his toys. It wasn’t until the pandemic hit, when he was almost 3, that we started letting him use a tablet, but we had already been going to a behavioral psychologist, an occupational therapist, and was in the process of being evaluated for special education before we gave him a tablet, so clearly the tablet was not the cause.

On the flip side of this point, our younger son does not appear to have ADHD, despite having more access to screens from a younger age than his brother. Again, I realize that’s just a sample size of two, but I’m just sharing my anecdotes.

My kids are meeting (and surpassing) their milestones.
My younger son just turned two a couple weeks ago. At his checkup, when the doctor walked in he said, “Hi doctor, there you are.” to which she responded, “Well, there’s nothing wrong with his language!” This kid has had access to a tablet for a majority of the past year and is addicted to TV (particularly Mickey Mouse Clubhouse). His older brother, who has ADHD, does have some fine motor delays, which he had before using tablets, but otherwise has met all his developmental milestones.

I’m not saying that tablets and screens caused them to meet their milestones, but it clearly didn’t harm them…I don’t know about eyes, though, so I do try to encourage them to wear blue light glasses.

Screens are helping them meet their milestones.
Ok, I know I just said that tablets didn’t cause them to meet their milestones, but I actually have seen a difference. Initially the only app I would let my kids use on my iPad was an AAC app called Proloquo2Go. It is a symbolic communication app designed for people who are non-speaking, which I used to use when I was teaching special education. Just like teaching sign language to babies enhances communication and language development (including deaf and hard of hearing babies, but that’s a rant for another day), providing them with AAC does the same thing. I do believe that having access to symbolic communication helped them develop speech.

I also mentioned that my son has fine motor delays, and the tablet has definitely helped him. I know all my occupational therapist friends are yelling at me right now, but hear me out. My child is a perfectionist, so if he doesn’t think he can do something, then he won’t do it, end of story. He knows that he struggles with writing, so he simply doesn’t. We have crayons, markers, coloring pages, an easel, dry erase boards, etc., but he doesn’t like them. However, if I put him on the touch and write app on the iPad, he can pick different textures (without having to physically touch them which is great for his sensory needs) and he will practice his writing. We also a kiddie stylus to help him with his grip rather than just using his finger. Since using the iPad to work on his ore writing skills, he’s more willing to practice writing on paper.

It’s enriching.
My kids (particularly the one with ADHD) need constant stimulation. Before the pandemic we would regularly go to the zoo, children’s museum, playgrounds, etc. Obviously those activities were sidelined by the pandemic, but even when they were available, it still wasn’t sustainable to do it everyday. For one thing, it’s expensive to go on outings, but also it would throw off routines and nap schedules which are just as important as enrichment activities.

So when we were home due to the pandemic, I relented and let my kids have more screen time. It ended up filling that void that was left by our outings really well. They learned about different places and cultures, and science and nature, and so many other concepts. I’m not saying that screens should replace hands on learning, but being able to access an unlimited amount of information and media is pretty darn cool.

It’s calming.
My kid does not stop moving. There are times he desperately wants to, but his poor little body just will not stop. Screen time is one of the only times he will sit still, and he often needs that rest. The visual and auditory stimuli are coming from a constant location, which makes it significantly easier for him to focus. The real world is unpredictable, but the virtual world can be controlled.

I also get the benefit of quiet time. I don’t care if you are the most Pinterest-perfect parent in the world, sometimes you need a break from engaging with your kids. Some kids can go play quietly by themselves, some can go read by themselves, some go watch PBS kids by themselves. Those kids (and their parents) should not be shamed for the ways they seek respite.

My youngest at age 1 watching PBS kids on his tablet

To be clear, my kids do not spend all day on their tablets. They play with legos, and trains, and dolls, and sometimes when they have spent too much time on their tablets we conveniently “forget” to charge them for a few days. We also have to make sure we use screen time responsibly. This post is not meant to say that screen time is necessary or better than other types of play, but I think it’s important that we don’t demonize it either. Screens can be valid and useful forms of play, communication, and therapies. If we want to build a more inclusive world, we have to stop labeling differences as “bad”.

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