You may remember my previous post Where's the T.V? I am not supportive of television or screen time at all for children but struggle with the practicalities. I reached out and asked a friend how she manages screen time in her home and how she does it.
Charlotte is Montessori trained, a mother of four and passionate about this topic. Charlotte answers my first question here.
1. Can you explain your position on screen time and why you feel it is such a negative?
My feelings towards screens, that is, televisions, computers and handheld devices and the role they play in children’s lives began when my eldest son, J, now almost seven, was in his infancy in 2005. When he was a baby it would be on in the background if we were watching something and when he was a toddler we would put it on for him. The changes in his behaviour were immediate. Usually being an energetic and curious young boy he would be unable to pull his gaze away from the screen, sitting in a trance like state, unmoving. Afterwards when it was switched off he would throw huge tantrums that were difficult to calm.
My husband and I questioned the need for the television at all, and when one evening we accidentally came across an article about psychologists advising against television for the under 3’s our suspicions were confirmed and we drastically reduced what and how much he watched. I wasn’t alone in my approach and knew of other parents at the time who described unwanted behaviour from their children after watching television and reduced their children’s screen time accordingly.
My husband and I did research into the matter, and around 2007, by the time my second child, A, was born we had discovered a huge amount of evidence to suggest that screen time for young children was negative rather than beneficial. In fact, what my husband and I found alarmed us and changed my attitude towards screens forever. I would like to point out that at this time in my life I knew nothing about the Montessori Method.
In an article written by psychologist Dr Aric Sigman, about the negative effects of television and children he writes:
“In August 1999, the American Academy of Paediatrics issued guidelines recommending that children under the age of two watch no television or any screen entertainment at all because television can negatively affect early brain development.”
The importance of what happens in the first three years of a child’s life is backed up by authors such as Sue Palmer who writes in her book Toxic Childhood that “massive numbers of neural connections are made in a child’s brain in the first three years of life – especially those associated with (development) of concentration, planning, self-control and empathy..” similar evidence can be gleaned from authors such as Lise Eliot in her excellent book “What’s going on in there?” a book about baby’s brain development. These examples are really just scratching the tip of a very big iceberg and the more we looked the more we found.
You see, screens, including computer screens and hand held technology such as phones and other communications devices, have a direct impact on children’s concentration as the screen flickers constantly. This flickering forces the brain, adult’s as well as children’s, to slip into the alpha state of brain waves, a state that makes people particularly receptive to what they see. This is very worrying as in this state unwanted ideas and images can lodge themselves into a child’s mind on an unconscious level which means we the adults don’t know how this affects the child’s mind for years to come and also the child is unaware of it as well. Not only that, but many psychologists write about the damage that the constant, quick succession of images on the screens has on children’s brain development also.
On a lot of television, especially terrestrial daytime broadcasts, you get ‘montage telly’, where the programmes are edited to cut rapidly from shot to shot. Music videos and movie trailers are especially guilty of this because they try to pack a lot of information into a short space of time. This is not healthy for children as the “rapid shift of images conditions the developing brain to expect a higher level of stimulation than that available in real life.” (Sue Palmer) This becomes addictive and could be why children feel lethargic, tired and angry when it comes to switching the screen entertainment off. Parents would do well to question what and who is influencing their children’s behaviour via this kind of technology.
I began to keep my children (only A and J at the time) away from most terrestrial television especially advertisements, only putting on children’s programmes supposed to be tailor made for them and to assist their learning, supporting language development. However, I quickly realised that this is total nonsense. I stopped believing the promotions of these children’s programmes and channels as having educational value; suggesting that the child, by watching these programmes, has eye to eye contact with people on the screen, and that viewing also encourages parent child interaction as they can talk about and discuss what they can see. Rubbish. How can this really replace real life experiences? Any parent would be far better off taking his/her child for a walk in a park with real people and engaging in proper eye to eye contact, talking together about what they see in the world around them.
When my son, J, was 3 and my daughter, A, was 1, I came across a local Montessori nursery that was so different to the other nurseries I had come across. It was a wholesome, ordered environment with real, child sized objects and activities for him to do with his hands, that would assist him with his physical and mental development and….there were no screens present. No computers. When I questioned one of the teachers why there weren’t any to be seen her answer was that it was not beneficial for the small children. This intrigued me and that along with other positive benefits I could clearly see from this Montessori environment led me to train to be a Montessori teacher in 2009.
Through my studies of Maria Montessori’s texts and learning about child developmentalists and their works, such as Piaget, I learnt that children learn by physically interacting with their environment, not by sitting just watching the world go by. As Montessori states in her book, “The Absorbent Mind” what the child, from birth, takes in from their immediate environment becomes their inner life and forms the building blocks of the personality that defines them ever afterwards. This means that what young children need is concrete experiences, real life conversations, and real objects to touch with their hands and lots of opportunities to be outside interacting with the natural world. The television is an abstract reality, it is not really there. A picture on a screen of a shell will not provide a child with any information other than its visual aspect. A real shell in a child’s hand means that the child can experience it on many levels; he/she can touch, smell and listen to a shell that is actually there. As well as this, a child under 3-4 years has no idea that the screen is not real. However, it will become the child’s reality if he/she is over exposed. This is very much the case with computer screens and games as well, which our children have never been exposed to at all, as my husband and I believe they take away children’s ability to imagine as what they are doing is wasting time within the confines of someone else’s ideas of what is on a screen.
During my training in the 3-6 Montessori curriculum in 2009, I became pregnant with my third child, F, my youngest son. During this time I became very interested in the 0-3 curriculum and found further evidence to prove to me that screen time and young children shouldn’t mix. I read Paula Polk Lillard’s book, “Montessori from the Start” where she states that babies have a sensitive period for concentration, that if they are not allowed to have quiet time to concentrate, then that time will be lost and the child will have missed out on a vital developmental step. I also came across Dr Silvana Montanaro, who wrote “television is an anti-experience, because it separates individuals from themselves and from the environment and makes them believe they are living while they are only observing passively what other people decide to make them see.” I also found out about Urie Brofenbremner, Professor of Human Development at Cornell University who wrote that “the primary danger of the television screen lies.. in the behaviour it prevents..” Montessori frequently discusses the importance of children’s development through movement and screen time destroys this opportunity for children to do this.
This lead me to the understanding that precious seconds of my children’s lives were ticking away. What else could they do doing with their time?
When my third child, F, was born in 2010, I determined that from the beginning, things would be different for him. We had already drastically cut down on what and how much our eldest two children watched but we took further steps. F has never watched television or been exposed to screens, (although he is aware of their existence by their appearance in the outside world), and he will soon be celebrating his second birthday. When I got pregnant with my fourth child, S, born 2011, my husband and I decided to unplug the terrestrial television permanently and cancel the subscription to our tv license as we realised that no one, including ourselves, ever watched it anymore.
Charlotte Stokes is a mother of four, a trained Montessori teacher and a psychology student. She also enjoys knitting and sewing toys and clothes and encouraging a love and understanding of nature in her children. Charlotte also writes at her blog Teeny tiny key.
I have a lot to learn from Charlotte! I really appreciate hearing from someone who has the same ideals as myself. Charlotte answers the rest of my questions and offers some great advice in Part Two on Monday.