Obsessing over our kids’ screen time doesn’t work. Here’s what does. It’s way easier—and it’s guilt-free.
Possibly nowhere in parenting is the gap between expert recommendations and day-to-day reality farther apart than “screen time.” We all know those oft-quoted guidelines: No screens for babies and toddlers under 2. Only two hours a day for ages 2-18.
By now it’s pretty clear to everyone that “screens” aren’t a distraction from daily life. They’re just life. They’re so seamlessly a part of how kids play, learn, and socialize—how we all do—that trying to rigidly parcel time spent on them is a little like trying to tell our kids to breathe for only two hours a day because there’s pollution in the air.
Even the American Academy of Pediatrics, the doctor group behind the guidelines, knows it: “In a world where ‘screen time’ is becoming simply ‘time,’” said the AAP in a recent announcement, “our policies must evolve or become obsolete.” They’re going back to the drawing board, promising to come up with something better in 2016.
But wait. What if there were a guilt-free way to stop worrying about screen time, boost your child’s brain, and build closer family relationships all at the same time? There is.
It requires just a simple shift in how we look at things. Remember that classic optical illusion of two faces in profile? All you can see are those two faces, nothing else—until suddenly, voila! You look at the same image in a new way, and a white vase appears. We’ve been programmed to fixate on the screens in our children’s worlds, as if they’re so uniformly and intrinsically bad that just limiting them will magically make everything better. But what if, instead, we shifted our attention to something else right there in front of us whose effects are well known and really easy to achieve:
Give your baby, toddler, preschooler, bigger kid, or teen enough ”talk time,” and most concerns about screen time pretty much go away.
The genius of “talk time”
Too obvious? So was the idea of deliberately giving babies “floor time,” back in the 1980s when child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan first proposed it. His thinking then was that all the new infant carriers, strollers, jumpers, and bouncy seats meant babies weren’t getting enough time to roll around on the floor and develop motor skills. He didn’t focus on taking all those cool new things away. He was smart enough to realize that JUST WASN’T GOING TO HAPPEN. Instead he proposed that parents give added priority to letting their babies move around freely on the floor while playing with them. He made sure that alongside the new gizmos, kids were still getting what they needed.
Flash forward a generation: Now tablets, smartphones, laptops, digital toys, and all the other screens and wired devices out there mean that our youngest kids aren’t getting enough opportunity to connect verbally with us and the other adults in their lives to wire their brains for language and learning. And older kids are missing out on critical relationship connections at a time when they need them most: while developing their interests and personalities, navigating friendships and dating, figuring out their futures.
All these interactions used to happen naturally. Now, we have to be a lot more intentional about them.
The idea isn’t to ban screen time for its own sake. It’s to make talk time such a priority that there’s just a little less room for screen time. Think of it as not giving kids less of one thing but of first making sure we’re giving them enough of this really great other thing.
It’s remarkably easy to build in Talk Time for kids at every age:
Babies and toddlers
Photo by Slava Basovich
Why it’s so important:
Especially in the early years, face-to-face connections with parents and caregivers is a ginormous part of how children learn, neuroscience has shown. That’s because the brain isn’t even close to being finished at birth—that takes place in the first three years or so of life through what’s happening in the child’s surroundings. The give-and-take of communication literally wires their brains.
Babies and young toddlers can’t pick up words and meanings through passive video watching, studies have shown. They really need lots of talk.
The proof: A famous 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley of the University of Kansas found that by age 4, regardless of socioeconomic status, some kids had heard about 32 million more words than others. And the kids in these language-rich homes usually wound up with higher IQs and were better prepared for school. They were stronger readers, had bigger vocabularies, and scored better on tests.
- Tune in: Paying close attention to what your baby is communicating to you is one of the “three T’s” (along with Talk More and Take Turns) of the Thirty Million Words Initiative, a parent education project started by Dana Suskind, a pediatric surgeon at the University of Chicago, who’s also the author of Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain. Make talk time a priority during everyday care moments, like whenever you’re changing a diaper, feeding, bathing, and dressing your baby. Watch where your baby is looking or what your toddler is pointing at, and respond to that. Engage your child’s interest with different pitches and facial expressions.
- Narrate the day: Talk about what you’re doing, what you’re seeing. Use lots of descriptive words: “I’m ready for lunch. Are you ready? Let’s see what we have. Oh, I see carrots and chicken. Mmm, carrots. They’re orange, just like these flowers.” Inane is okay. If it helps, think of your baby as a little alien visitor from another planet whom you’re orienting to Earth life.
- Read aloud: The spoken words a young child hears can come from books, too. Reading exposes the brain to new sounds, new words, and the flow of language. Picture books give you something to talk about together.
- Have conversations: Babies learn early that words are used to share meaning between two people. Conversational turn-taking is part of this: You talk, I talk, back and forth. Even a cooing, babbling baby will play along with encouragement. Try it: Say something to your baby (when she’s happy and alert). Then pause. She’ll look at you and make some sounds back. Then she’ll wait for you to respond. She may even start to imitate your intonations so that her babbles sound like language.
Preschoolers and school-age kids
Why it’s so important:
As children get older, they continue to need us to respond to their questions, put what they see and learn into context, show them new things—all kinds of interactions that can happen only through talking and listening. In fact, research shows that lots of practice in face-to-face exchanges is virtually the only way kids develop the social skills—empathy, cooperation, collaboration, sharing—that they’ll need for the rest of their lives.
How to make it happen:
- Set aside certain times of the day expressly for talk time: During dinner, for example, or during drives to and from school, ask about how the day went or talk about what will be happening the next day. Bedtime is another natural opportunity to take 10 minutes to review the day’s highlights and talk about what’s coming.
- Make phubbing off-limits for everyone in the family. Can we all agree to avoid “phubbing” (phone snubbing) our kids by trying to multitask and talk at the same time, with our ears on our child but our eyes on our phone? Doing just one or the other doesn’t take that much longer—and the payoff is huge. Studies have shown that kids say they feel “unimportant,” “sad,” “mad,” and “boring” when parents are distracted during conversations. But when we model a better way of interacting, they feel respected AND learn from us.
- Take full advantage of built-in talk times: while watching TV or a movie together, when helping with homework, while reading aloud (an activity kids love to do with us even after they can read on their own). Family rituals are also great for this, like game night, pancake-breakfast Saturdays, or after-dinner bike rides. It also helps to have on hand lots of materials that draw you together: craft kits and science projects, art supplies, building toys or materials, cards and classic games. As parents, we often have a tendency to back off on playing with our kids as they get older and more capable of doing things on their own—but they actually like spending some of their play time with us.
Tweens and teens
Why it’s so important:
As they’re preparing for independence, older kids often resist adults or shut us out. Experts in adolescent development assure that even when teens act like they don’t care about us or think of us pretty much like wallpaper, they still crave our guidance and input. They still care about us, but their drive for autonomy means it’s not always cool to act like they do. Talk time is as vital as ever, just a little different in how it comes about.
How to make it happen:
- Set aside a few key zones just for talk. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Maybe at the breakfast or dinner table or in the car. Make it a house rule that conversations get everyone’s full attention—no phubbing on either side. They might balk at first because distracted talking is the norm when they’re with their friends. All the more reason for them to get practice with you. (Your kid’s future employers and partners will be grateful, too.)
- Be persistent. Don’t take it personally if you find it harder to talk to your tween or teen than you used to. Stay curious even if you get rebuffed half the time. For every 10 monosyllabic shrugs, your teen will give you one longer string of words to work with. (That’s not a scientific stat; I made it up. But I’ve been there.) Don’t feel rejected or hurt those nine other times. Wait for the good mood, the strong feeling, or the inevitable “I need…” or “I want….”
- Show that you’re open for talk. Listening is a really important part of talk time with adolescents. You don’t always have to rush in with advice, opinions, or a 10-step plan of attack. In fact, that can be a great recipe for getting tuned out. Two tactics that work better: Echo back what you’re hearing: “You sound really stressed.” And ask lots of questions: “What makes you say that?” “What do you want to do?”
- Aim for weekly family outings. On top of everyday talk zones, make some kind of weekly gathering a priority, so talk times don’t get crowded out by peer activities. Whether it’s dinner out, visiting relatives, or supporting a younger sibling’s band concert, doing stuff together opens up precious space for connectedness.
When we make talk time as important as the other ways we nourish our kids—making sure they get good food and enough sleep—we get a similar benefit: a healthier kid. And who doesn’t want that? Giving a little extra attention to talking, making it a daily habit, means that you’ve automatically got some important stuff covered, from wiring their brains in babyhood to helping them become nicer, brighter, and more secure people.
Plus, when you focus on more talk time, you can skip the whole crazy calculus of less screen time. It comes naturally.
Best of all, talk is cheap. And priceless.