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Switching Off: Parents Urged to Keep Infants Away from Digital Screens

June 1, 2017 8:57 AM | The Canadian Press

By David Friend, The Canadian Press

Children iPads

Children work on iPads in Medford, Mass., in a Sept.18, 2014 file photo. The Canadian Paediatric Society issued its first-ever standalone recommendations for how much time children aged five and under should spend in front of a screen. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Stephan Savoia)

TORONTO – Vanessa Lewis couldn’t imagine watching her kids grow up bombarded by digital screens — so she effectively banned the technology from their sight.

Making a pact with her husband, the couple decided even talking on a smartphone in the vicinity of their infant twins was unacceptable.

“If we needed to use our phones we would leave the room,” the Toronto mother says.

“We’ve made a real effort not to have our phones available to them.”

While it wasn’t always easy, Lewis says banishing TV, tablets and phones was rewarding for her family. Now almost four years old, her boys spend more time playing outside and reading books instead of staring blankly at screens.

New guidelines released Thursday by the Canadian Paediatric Society suggest Lewis is on the right track. The organization issued its first-ever standalone recommendations for how much time children aged five and under should spend in front of a screen.

Among the Canadian guidelines is a reaffirmation of their past statement that kids younger than two years old should completely avoid screen time.

Putting a stronger focus on digital-screen time management is a new position for the CPS, which for years buried its recommendations within its healthy active living guidelines. But a recent survey of its membership — which consists partly of pediatricians and family physicians — found that parents are increasingly seeking professional advice on shifts in the digital culture.

The overall sentiment leans towards not only limiting screen time, but in some cases eliminating it all together.

Its advice is more restrictive than guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recently loosened its view on screen time, saying that infants younger than 18 months could participate in video-chatting with relatives and friends.

Dr. Michelle Ponti of the Canadian Paediatric Society found that introducing screens at such an early age is unnecessary.

“We could not find any good evidence to suggest benefits in introducing technology early,” she says.

“There are so many risks of harm that we felt the risks outweighed any potential benefit.”

Ponti suggests parents start making a “family media plan” even before their child is born, outlining when, where and how screens may be used.

Canadian and U.S. guidelines both recommend toddlers aged two to five should watch no more than an hour of screen time per day — and turn off screens at least an hour before bedtime. Programs should be chosen with specific educational goals to encourage language and literacy development.

Parents are also encouraged to actively engage with their children while using digital screens.

“Sometimes we find that all of the bells and whistles from some of these programs or ebooks really distracts from learning and parent-child interaction,” Ponti says.

“Parents ask fewer questions to their child when they’re on an ebook.”

Other guidelines in the new outline suggest parents model good screen use for their children, such as limiting consumption of TV programs and switching off screens if they’re not being watched.

The recommendations say research shows that high exposure to background TV can negatively affect language development and attention spans in children under five years old.

But the suggestions emphasize that digital screens aren’t always bad. In some cases, screens can be used as a tool rather than a toy.

Video chatting with relatives is considered a positive example of how kids can help translate what they see on screen to real-life experiences.

Lewis says in her household, video chats are one of the rare instances in which her kids are allowed to use screens; occasionally they’ll Facetime with their grandparents.

The mom says limiting her boys’ digital habits has proven successful so she kept the household rules in place when her daughter was born last year.

Her boys still encounter smartphones on occasion, especially when family and friends visit, and Lewis has taken note of how quickly they’re drawn towards the colourful and interactive devices.

But she’s confident her kids will instinctively pick up technology when they’re introduced to the devices at school.

“For them what’s more important are all the skills they develop when they’re younger by not having the screens in front of them,” Lewis says.

“All the free play and problem-solving skills they developed, to me, trumps any sort of technological savvy they may have missed out on.”

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