All Screen Time Is Definitely Not Created Equal

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

My seven-year-old was watching the new “Octonauts” movie recently. He told me there were lots of volcanoes in the Pacific Ocean.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s called ‘The Ring of Fire.'”

“I know,” he told me. “The Ring of Fire surrounds the entire Pacific Ocean. Some of the volcanoes are little and some are big.” He went back to watching “Octonauts.” I just mentioned it again while writing this, and again he told me what the Ring of Fire was. He learned it, and he learned it from a cartoon. Bitch about screen time all you want, but it’s not created equal.

If you deny it, you never watched “Sesame Street” as a kid.

I do Duolingo Spanish. When I come to numbers, I still sing the “Sesame Street” counting song to remember seis and siete (my brain always wants to mix them up). “Sesame Street” taught me:

  1. rudimentary Spanish words
  2. ecology (we have too much garbage)
  3. death (mourn ya til we join ya, Mr. Hooper)
  4. numbers (via vampire)
  5. letters (no jokes here. I seriously learned my letters via “Sesame Street”)

Yeah, my parents “wasted” plenty of my time on “David the Gnome” and “The Smurfs” and “My Little Pony.” But “Sesame Street” was well-worth my time, and that’s its goal. With the advent of quality children’s programming, there’s no reason to lump all screen time together as bad. Everything isn’t “Caillou.” My kids watch plenty of crap (hello, “Dragonriders” anything), but they also watch plenty that’s good.

So don’t judge me.

There’s plenty of “Magic School Bus” going on in my house. Everyone knows Ms. Frizzle is entertaining. And everyone knows that Ms. Frizzle is educational. She’s not my kids watching “Amphibia” or “Gravity Falls,” as fun as they are. There’s always “Odd Squad” and “Dino Dan” or “Dino Dana.”

But this isn’t a list of shows about how cool my kids’ screen choices are. This is about your judgment.

We Tend To Judge All Screen Time


Getty Images/iStockphoto

When I tell you my kids always watch TV while they eat lunch, and a lot of the time while they eat dinner, you’re likely utterly appalled. You think I’m a terrible parent. You think I’m degenerating modern society and personally destroying American family life.

Then I’ll tell you that they only watch documentaries, and we pick them. They have to do with their homeschool lessons, paleontology, or human evolution, their two favorite parts of science. So my kids might be snarfing chicken nuggets and watching a documentary on Denisovans and how their DNA may have been passed into some human populations more than others, and how scientists have discovered that.

That doesn’t count as screen time. My kids know how to properly pronounce Neanderthals’ name, their historical range, and can name various theories about their extinction, in addition to describing their physical differences from modern humans. Why does it matter that this information came from a talking box?

Screen Time Is The Future, Anyway

Talk to my husband, who teaches high school: screen time is the future. If you feel like you can’t tear your kid away from their screens for love or money, then they’re only working in the world they’ll move through for the rest of their lives. Books? My oldest reads physical books. But he reads on his Kindle Fire. Is that screen time? Is reading a Star Wars novel screen time, or a Star Wars comic screen time? He does that on his Kindle Fire, too.

Then he turns to do research on UFO sightings. On a tablet.

Your students will learn lessons on a tablet — and I don’t mean from virtual school. I mean they will occasionally watch TV lessons. They’ll take notes on another device simultaneously. You’ve already seen how much they use screens in schools as more and more districts provide each student with a laptop. They aren’t just using them for word-processing and research. They’re also watching YouTube clips of Shakespeare adaptations. They’re reading books on Project Gutenberg. They’re talking to friends.

Socializing on Screen Has Value, Too

Don’t you have friends who only live on the internet? So does my 11-year-old. They play Dungeons and Dragons on Thursday nights. Especially during the pandemic, socializing via screen time has become more important than ever.

Yes, a lot of it is and can be toxic, and there’s a risk of too much of it — we all know how hard it can be to log off Facebook. We all know how risky it is to let our kids socialize with others on the internet: between the porn and cyberbullying, it’s tempting to lock down their social accounts permanently.

But messaging his friends using predictive text has helped my dysgraphic son write. Facebook Messenger Kids has let him keep in touch with people during the pandemic. And a combination of Messenger Kids and moms making Google Hangout dates via regular Facebook has allowed him to play D&D with friends. None of that screen time has been wasted time. It’s kept him mentally healthy during a solid year of no other kids to play with but his little brothers.

So stop being judgy about all kinds of screen time. Yes, some parents are plopping their kids in front of the Nintendo Switch during the pandemic and letting them play away with no redemptive educational value. But a good bit of screen time is more than that. So don’t judge, jerkface. Even if my kids are watching “Amphibia” at this exact moment. In an hour, they won’t be.

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