Too Much Screen Time Is a Systemic Problem for Parents Struggling with Child Care

Research shows screen time increases threefold in the first three years of life and the lack of affordable child care may be to blame. 

Screen time increases by 300 percent between the ages of 1 and 3, according to a recent study published in Jama Pediatrics. And that's not all: The study shows twins were more likely than single-born kids to fall into the group with the most screen time, and kids in home-based care (parent, babysitter, or relative) were more than twice as likely to be in that same group compared to kids in center-based care.

In a perfect world, parents would always opt for outdoors time over screen time. But for many parents, decreasing screen time isn't as simple as it sounds, despite reports about the potentially negative impact of screens on development. That's because screens are increasingly used as an entertainment and distraction tool for kids deemed necessary due to a lack of quality child care that doesn't cost more than a house payment or rent every month.

Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic has closed schools and businesses across the country, many parents are now working from home while caring for children. In times like these, screentime has become, not just a convenient way to occupy your child, but an absolutely necessary tool. Parents are loosening up on screentime rules for entertainment and many schools are providing educational content and teacher-led lessons online via video chat platforms.

Without screentime during crisis periods, children would not only have fewer educational opportunities but also no way to socialize with peers or family members. With the closure of schools and daycares, parents are doing what they must to survive and concern about screentime has taken a backseat to more present concerns, like family and friends becoming sick, ever-growing food and supply shortages, and a looming recession.

The United States government defines affordable child care as care costing no more than seven percent of a family's total income, yet more than 40 percent of families say they earmark more than 15 percent of their total income for it, according to a 2019 survey published by Survey respondents said they pay $199 per week for a family care center and $596 per week for a nanny on average.

It's clear: Affordable child care in America is a dream. And child care facilities that are affordable are usually only affordable because of low staff wages. They are also often understaffed because of high turnover due to those low wages. In turn, parents scramble to find other ways to handle child care. Screens often become what busy parents and caregivers have to use to make it through the day. "Screen time is used as a last resort substitute for child care for many families," explains licensed child therapist Katie Lear.

Lear is used to families telling her about the financial burden they have when it comes to paying for child care. Parents, she says, often feel conflicted about returning to work because of the costs to find reliable child care for their little ones. "Particularly for parents who work from home, it can be hard to justify hiring a sitter or paying for daycare," says Lear. "And yet children need to be able to keep themselves occupied during important work calls. Turning on the TV or handing the child an iPad can buy the parent some valuable time during what can be a very tiring day."

If affordable child care wasn't just a pipe dream, if the system we have wasn't dependent on two incomes, if parents could actually afford not to work 50+ hours a week plus their side-hustle on the weekends, if child care centers could afford to pay their workers a desirable wage, then maybe, we'd see screen time decrease instead of increase.

We know it's not ideal. We know our kids should be interacting with something other than YouTube videos and flash games for hours a week. The evidence is out there and we're pummeled with it every few months when a new study comes out. But until we fix our broken system and until affordable, quality child care becomes a reality, parents and caregivers are going to do whatever they can to make it, and that includes using screens as passive child care.

Parents don't deserve the guilt and recrimination they so regularly receive just for trying to make it to bedtime. So even when allowing more screen time than desired, parents should treat themselves with kindness, says Lear. "I encourage parents to be more forgiving with themselves," she says. "Parents have a lot stacked against them when it comes to child care costs, and everyone is doing the best they can in the moment. It's great to aim for less screen time, but parents shouldn't beat themselves up over handing their child a phone every once in a while in a pinch."

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