Screening Screen Time

There are many areas in parenting in which we modern parents can reach back to the wisdom of the ancients (or at least our own parents) for advice. Of course, there are many where we can’t, as any listicle about children of the 1970s and 1980s will attest. And then there’s screen time, the most elusive parenting issue for those raising the digital natives of Generation Z. I hate to break it to you, parents-of-today, but your mommy can’t help you now.

So where do you turn for advice? The American Academy of Pediatrics, of course! Well, when—per my childbirth educator’s directions—I purchased and read the 5th edition of Caring for Your Baby and Young Child Birth to Age 5, I found that the AAP’s guidelines only referenced television. (Even in this book about babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, the computer-related information was geared towards older children.) Those guidelines stated that children under two should avoid television altogether and that older children should view “no more than one to two hours per day of educational, nonviolent programs, which should be supervised by parents or other adults in the home.” Say what there, AAP? What happened to the halcyon days of TV as babysitter? And I guess my kid could spend all the time she wanted on other screens as long as she wasn’t watching TV? Okay, I know that’s not what was implied by leaving out all non-television screens, but it’s really hard to take the AAP’s advice seriously when they completely disregard non-television screen time, which was a thing even way back in 2009 when this book was published.

On their website, the AAP now recommends that children under two should avoid “entertainment media” and that “[c]hildren and teens should engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day, and that should be high-quality content.” Okaaaay. We’re getting warmer here, AAP. However, there’s no definition of what constitutes entertainment media or “high-quality content.” I’m sure that we parents could come to some agreement on that. Shows like Paw Patrol and Bubble Guppies, movies like Star Wars: A New Hope and Frozen—those are entertaining. Shows like Sesame Street are educational.

Then there are the less easily classifiable things. What about games like Minecraft that aren’t explicitly education? My daughter is too young for Minecraft, but I’ve read blog posts and heard from friends with older children who love the game and here’s a short list of benefits: children learn observation and research skills, develop patience, learn teamwork skills, improve their problem-solving abilities, use geometry, and learn about budgeting through resource management. But it’s still a game and can be a time-suck, it encourages interaction with strangers who are not necessarily into the cooperative aspect of the game, and it does not have an end. Then there are other kinds of “entertainment” available online, like opera. (Bet you thought I was going somewhere totally different, didn’t you?) We took my then-three-year-old daughter to an opera performance and she was completely enchanted. Given the cost of going to a live opera, this was not going to be a regular opportunity, so we found a performance of the opera online for her to watch and she loved to watch it as often as we would let her. Is it education or entertainment? And then, of course, there are e-books, which are not all created equal.

In the absence of more authoritative definitions of “high-quality content” and “entertainment media,” my family has come up with its own standards. And, of course, because my four years and five months of parenting experience and the fact that I blog make me a total expert, I’ll share my wisdom with you. Hear, ye! Hear, ye!

First off, I’ll admit that we bought my daughter and iPod before she was born. We realized that we no longer owned a CD player, so we purchased an iPod and speaker for the nursery so we could play lullabies and soothing sounds. Once she was old enough to manipulate the screen (I don’t remember when this was, but I guarantee the kid was younger than two), we downloaded some free Fisher-Price apps about shapes and colors that she could play with in her crib while I showered. I do not, and have never, subscribed to the mommy-doesn’t-get-to-shower philosophy.

She’s been introduced to the Disney Princess pantheon, as well as some other Disney movies and some of the modern animated offerings from other studios. Recently, we’ve started watching classic animated shorts from Warner Brothers and Disney, which she loves. We have some educational games (Endless Numbers and Endless Alphabet are worth every penny!) on her iPad and some ebooks.

When thinking about the media we let her consume, my husband and I take several things into account:

  • Is the media age appropriate?
    • We check Common Sense Media for their opinion (a source also recommended by the AAP), we talk to friends who have children of similar ages, and we use our own knowledge of our child and the media in question.
  • Does the media have any redeeming quality? We consider:
    • Are we allowing the treat of old Mickey Mouse cartoons while Momma works?
    • Are we watching a movie together as a family?
    • Are we using the screen to Skype with far away family?
    • Is the game educational?
    • Are we experiencing something cultural that we, for whatever reason, cannot experience in real life?

We don’t mind letting the kid watch the media equivalent of cotton candy on occasion. (I’d let her watch old Chip and Dale cartoons all day long just to hear her giggles.) As a matter of fact, we watch 10 or 15 minutes of a movie every night as part of our bedtime routine. But we look at Skyping with family, practicing writing letters and spelling, or watching a ballet, opera, or stage performance as very different than watching a movie or hanging out with the iPad because Momma and Dad need to work.

  • If she’s reading an e-book, what kind of book is it?
    • We vowed not to be a Disney-obsessed family, but after receiving a free e-book at Disney Story Central, we found that Disney’s e-books are great! One of the pushbacks against children’s e-books is that they often have additional bells and whistles: things to click on, movement, noise, etc. We have one of that of e-book, and it’s fun to read together, but I don’t consider it a book because of all the distractions. The Story Central books are just books. The words light up when read if the book is in audio-reading mode, but that’s about as fancy as it gets. (I appreciate that feature because I am absolutely terrible about pointing to words as I read—a problem when you have a child who’s at the stage where she really wants to learn how letters and words work.)
  • What else has she done that day?
    • Was it a school day, where she’s spent the morning interacting with her friends and the adults in the school, and where she got time for free play, outside free play, and structured movement time in the Activity Room? Or has she been home alone with me all day playing by herself and not going outside?
    • A couple weeks ago, we spent several hours visiting a relative in the hospital. The visit included a lengthy time spend with the medical team. After my daughter visited with family, and then spent an hour coloring and learning how to play dots with her dad, we absolutely gave her a phone and let her play a counting game.
  • What do we have coming up in our schedule?
    • For example, we’re getting ready to head off for my daughter’s first visit to Disney World. We’ll have five incredibly full days where our routine is completely shot. I’m okay with a little extra screen time as we hang out at home and prepare for the trip.
  • Is the kid asking for the screen time, or are we encouraging her to take it so we can do something else?
    • Neither of these things is inherently good or bad, but if I notice that I’m trying to employ the screen as a sitter more often than is reasonable (I know I shouldn’t do it at all, but you’ll never hear me claiming to be a perfect parent!), or I see an increase in her requests for screen time, I know I need to pause and think about what’s driving us to the screen.

The APA noted in October 2015 that its most recent guidelines (from 2011) were drafted before the iPad was released, along with the accompanying development of apps aimed at children. They recognized that scientific study and knowledge is outpaced by the development of technology—we’re not sure how screen time in general affects kids’ brain development, for example. At the same time, they also noted that sticking to the then-current guidelines of severely restricted screen time meant that their advice and authority in the matter was likely to be viewed as out-of-touch, obsolete, and unrealistic. True that! I’m interested to see what the group comes out with in the next update of their media guidelines. I figure if we trust the American Academy of Pediatrics enough to follow their advice when it comes to our children’s physical health, they have the potential to be a good source of information about helping us guide their mental development, as well. In the meantime, my family will keep up its critical consumption of media. With the occasional pleasurable outing to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. After all, everything in moderation.

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Christina lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, daughter, and two English Springer Spaniels. Before becoming a reluctant stay-at-home mom, she worked in a variety of customer-service-oriented jobs while dreaming of living in the lap of luxury as a housewife. Unfortunately, having a child threw a wrench in Christina's plan to do nothing but eat bonbons while lounging in the Jacuzzi reading all day. Now, she spends her time looking for fun activities and crafts for her daughter and easy-to-prepare meals for her family, while trying not to land the kid in therapy when she grows up. Christina volunteers at several different places, and her particular passion is for her role as a sexuality educator. She loves to read, and to learn about--and share--new products and resources.

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