Family Relationships, Happier Homes

Is My Mother-in-Law Ruining my Child with Screens?

Published: 20 Jun 2017
Is My Mother-in-Law Ruining my Child with Screens?

Hi Dr Justin, 

"My husband’s mum watches our twelve-month-old daughter three days a week so I can work. I’m really grateful she helps us because grandparent care is free and if we paid childcare I might as well not work – but we need the money. My question is about screens. My mother-in-law has the television on all day and uses it to keep Claire occupied. She also gives her an i-Pad to play with which I’ve asked her not to but she does it anyway. I’m worried that my daughter is getting too much screen time. Should I say something, or am I making a big deal about nothing?"

A farmer was spotted tearing along the side of the highway on a horse. He looked like he was in a big hurry. As he shot past one of the farmhands, the hired help yelled out, “Where are you going boss?”

The farmer yelled back, “Ask the horse!”

I feel like technology in our families is a bit like the horse. We’re just hanging on while the horse races along out of control. And I think you’re absolutely correct in being concerned.

Our entire society has been swept up in a screen tsunami. We’ve embraced the tech before we know anything about how it affects us. But research is starting to trickle through and what it is teaching us about infants, toddlers, pre-schoolers, and even older children makes me certain about one thing: when it comes to screens, less is usually better.

Here are five scientific reasons we should keep little ones off screens:

Speech Delays

Time on screens impacts children’s capacity for language and speech. Researchers found that the more handheld screen time a child's parent reported, the more likely the child was to have delays in expressive speech. For each 30-minute increase in handheld screen time, researchers found a 49 percent increased risk of expressive speech delay.


A 2015 study found that infants exposed to screen media – in the background! – after 7pm had a 28-minute decrease in night-time sleep duration 6 months later. Other studies have shown that screens displace sleep immediately (which is a concern), but this study showed the long-term effects. Our kids need to be in bed dreaming, not staring at screens and streaming.

Play and Outside time

Studies show that wellbeing increases for all of us (including infants and toddlers) when we can be outside, playing and exploring. Screen time impacts on time for outside play and exploration. Our kids do better with green time than screen time.

Cognitive Development and Attention

Kids from the youngest age have a remarkable capacity to be attentive to a screen. It provides lots of stimulation. But studies are now indicating that attention span is decreasing away from screens, and that cognitive development is being affected.

Social and Emotional Development

I’m particularly worried that screens are affecting our little one’s ability to be empathic, and to see and understand emotions in others. They’re affecting kids’ capacity to relate to others.

Evidence suggests that when we use screens to calm our children or just to keep them amused, they miss out on valuable face-to-face time with us. It’s those minute-to-minute interactions that teach them how to engage, connect, respond, and be attuned to emotions of others, and manage socially.

What do you do?

Given all of these concerns, it is important to minimise screen time for your daughter. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests zero screens for kids under 18-months. And they recommend keeping it as low as possible for kids up to around age 5.

In your situation it’s tough because your mother-in-law is already doing you a favour. She may not like to be told her “help” is not good enough or needs “fixing”.

Understanding why your mother-in-law is so reliant on the screen while watching your daughter is a useful first start. If she is incapable of providing the level of connection and interaction your daughter needs, perhaps an alternative care solution might be necessary.

If your mother-in-law is open to talking, some options might include sharing this article with her. You could send your daughter to Nanna’s house with activities that will encourage engagement – colouring in, painting, chalk, a ball, dolls, cars, or any other favourite toys. Perhaps your husband could have the conversations to make things easier for you.

I believe your mother-in-law most likely wants to be helpful and thinks she’s doing a great job. But she’s riding that horse – just like the rest of society – and it’s going somewhere fast. We just don’t know exactly where. In the meantime, make sure she feels appreciated, and tread gently. Good luck.

Read more about kids and screens here


Get helpful parenting news & tips delivered weekly

Weekly parenting news & tips

Stay up to date with our latest resources by signing up to our newsletter, you’ll receive weekly updates, free resources, guides, downloadables, and content to help you create a happier home.