Haters gonna hate

I Don’t Limit My Kid’s Screen Time. Don’t @ Me.

Yes, I’ve read the recommendations. I just think they’re a little overblown.

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This is one of those times in my writing life when I feel like I’m lobbing a grenade, taking cover, and awaiting return fire. Here goes: I don’t especially care how much TV my four year old watches, and while I do forbid certain content (the usual suspects of violence, cursing, and sex, plus toy unboxing videos and Blippi), I don’t restrict the duration.

The caveat, I admit, is that my son doesn’t watch that much — maybe an hour or so total on weekdays, split between before preschool and after, and a little more on weekends. Often, he doesn’t ask to watch at all. I think it’s because we’ve never made TV into forbidden fruit. (Tighten the reins on stuff, conventional wisdom says, and your kid will covet it with frightening intensity.) Typically, he watches for a while, then asks to go for a bike ride or for help on an art project, or he wanders off to play. The hold that screens have on him is loose, at least for now. If that should change, we’ll reevaluate — but in general, I’m the kind of mom who tries to keep a loose hold, too.

Plus, even when he is watching, he’s not staring, slack-jawed. He’s glancing up occasionally to see what color Goofy’s hat is so he can finish drawing him. He’s rushing to his shelf to find a book on sea creatures, because Captain Barnacle of The Octonauts just mentioned cuttlefish. He’s inquiring about what particles and light waves are after Ask the StoryBots explains why the sky is blue. For him, “watching” is participating, an interactive exploration that’s mind-expanding, not brain-dulling. Even when he’s watching the (very good) Mickey Mouse animated shorts, he’s asking why a character feels a certain way, or what a mysterious object is (a tollbooth, Turkish delight, roller-skates). The basic goal of parenting is to teach our kids both how the world functions and how to live in it. Why can’t the glowing box in our living rooms, the one overflowing with information, do some of that work?

As most any fretful parent can recite verbatim, the powers that be (aka the American Academy of Pediatrics) have decreed that kids shouldn’t engage with screens before age 2, and that once they do, their exposure should max out at an hour a day. Look, I believe in science. I’m not one of those moms who does “research” on Facebook and decides their local essential oil purveyor knows more than a cadre of academics. The studies on screens and kids under two are both illuminating and compelling. Toddlers, it seems, fail to learn much from screens because they don’t view what they see on them as part of the real world. In one study, a group of toddlers was shown a video of a toy being hidden in the room next door, then led to the room and told to find it. Almost none did; they didn’t connect the video to life. But when the TV was disguised to look like a window, they knew where it was and found it easily. To little ones, TV is fake and a window is real.

If that’s how toddlers interpret what’s on a screen, there’s little hope for them becoming geniuses after taking in Baby Einstein, and it’s reasonable to conclude that every hour spent watching is a potential hour of enrichment lost. But I fail to see why occasional screen time is bad for under-twos, and I certainly don’t believe it’s some grave disservice to a child. In fact, research shows that co-viewing with an adult who helps them interpret what they see can deepen a small child’s ability to glean information from what they watch. I’d argue that this doesn’t apply only to explicitly educational media. While watching Finding Nemo with a toddler, for example, a parent could point at Marlon’s sorrowful expression in the opening scene and say, “He looks sad.” They could point to the wide shots of the open sea and say, “That’s the ocean, it’s so big.” That’s learning, too. And when my son saw the Atlantic as a two-year-old, it’s precisely why he exclaimed, “whoa, big ocean!”

Screen time hysteria feels to me like little more than the moral panic du jour. In the eighties, it was moms “abandoning” their kids to go to work; in the nineties, it was parents letting kids play violent video games; today, we’re mushing our kids’ brains by showing them Zootopia. Isn’t it wild that somehow parents are always, always doing it wrong? If your 18-month-old watches a movie to get through a flight, you’re not going to parent jail. If your 23-month-old enjoys the soothing sound of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II narration as you blow-dry your hair before work, you’re fine.

For the record, I find the “I watched a bunch of TV as a kid and I turned out fine” line of reasoning specious — for starters, we should all strive to do better at parenting than our parents did, because we have the benefit of learning from their mistakes, and further, we should all aim for far better than “fine.” What I’m saying is that TV is helping my kid be learned and inquisitive and wise, not hindering him. I approach screen time in much the same way I approach intuitive eating, which is the principle we use at home. If your child learns that they don’t have to feel anxious about food, that it isn’t criminalized or scarce or riddled with obligation (i.e., making a kid clean their plate even if they’re full), they consume a reasonable amount of reasonable food and don’t imbue it with undue importance. They make good choices and learn moderation, which, by the way, you can’t force a child to grasp. They have to figure it out for themselves, and they can’t do that without a little freedom to explore.

If the standard AAP screen time policy feels right to you, great. If your kids would struggle to peel themselves off the couch if you went limitless on TV and need boundaries for this reason, also great— you know your child and what’s right for them. And that’s exactly my point. Short of letting them juggle knives (or skip vaccinations), every parent should do what feels best to them, for their particular kids. For me, that’s focusing on actual problems in my son’s life, like the jerk at school who told him blue is for boys and pink is for girls (thanks a lot, Brayden), or the food allergies he’s starting to understand (try telling a four-year-old he’s the only kid who can’t have a donut hole). Parenting is so hard, and so full of worry. Why would I add something that’s been a net positive in my child’s life to the list of things to fret over? I’d much rather snuggle up with him and learn about mudskippers and how the human ear works and what Saturn’s rings are made of — and luxuriate in the peace that comes from not treating every last thing about parenthood like it’s goddamn life or death.