Parents are all over the ballpark with their ideas about how much screen time is too much. Some people don’t allow any, and some don’t limit it at all. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, I think. Last time I checked the official AAP recommendation was no more than an hour or two a day total of using the TV, tablet, computer or phone.
What I’m about to say is not based on science, research, or anything I’ve read. I’m just a dedicated mom who wants to let you in on a little part of my family’s life in the hopes that you will choose to reserve judgment and make life easier for parents like me.
You have to stop judging parents for allowing screen time that you don’t personally think is acceptable.
For a long time, I abided by the two-hour rule. My first child didn’t get much screen time until he was two, then he got to watch PBS and other pre-approved educational programs on my iPad. Henry is eight now, and rarely watches a show that doesn’t teach him something. He plays a few minutes of an iPad game here and there or a few levels of a Playstation with my husband on a weekend night. Henry isn’t obsessed with screens, and I don’t really have to monitor his screen time. He self-limits, preferring to be outside with his dinosaur toys, drawing, coloring, or building something.
My third baby is on the same course. She is almost a year and a half, and besides a few minutes of “Cocomelon” or “Word Party” while I try to get a shower in, she never really sees a screen. Amelia is way too busy for screen time.
We do things a little differently with our second child.
Walker is autistic. To be honest, he doesn’t require a lot of accommodations. At school, he gets some extra time when he needs it, sees a speech therapist and sticks close to his teachers, but he does really well in a mainstream classroom. His language skills are a little bit delayed, but he uses speech appropriately much of the time, making his needs and desires known. He might cover his ears when I run the blender, but he still walks over to see what I’m cooking up. He doesn’t need us to modify our plans for him. We watch him closely for signs of discomfort and ask often what he needs, but for the most part, Walker is along for the ride much like any other child.
And we owe that in part to our iPad.
When Walker was trying to learn how to communicate using words, providing him with educational apps changed the game. It gave him language to mimic without the pressure of communicating to another person. Speech therapy changed his life, but so did the Endless family of apps. (We don’t limit how much Walker uses the iPad, but we are very careful about what kind of things he can do while he uses it.) Walker is only in preschool, but using his iPad, he has taught himself to read. He has also learned basic math and taught himself advanced shapes, like torus and dodecahedron.
Now that Walker can speak fairly well, he uses his iPad differently.
He is still learning every day, but he also uses it to decompress. Walker is along for the ride like any other child—but it takes a lot more out of him than it does most kids. After a family party, a day at the zoo or a particularly challenging day at school, Walker’s mind is exhausted. He needs a space to decompress. In our small home with two siblings, an energetic dog and two parents, a quiet, calm space is hard to come by.
But laser focus is Walker’s superpower. He doesn’t need us to be silent and give him physical space. He just needs permission to tune us all out. My boy creates his own calm. His iPad helps. When he turns on a video he enjoys or plays an app he likes, he gets a break from all the sensory input of his surroundings. He can lose himself in the experience for a while and when he turns it off, he is relaxed, happy and ready to cooperate for the next task.
Sometimes, he needs that screen time break while we are in public.
You might look at us and see a family having dinner on a picnic table at the park, but instead of talking to our preschooler, we are just letting him “bury his face in a phone.” You might be tempted to judge my parenting.
But there’s so much you don’t see.
What you don’t see is that our boy went to school for five hours that morning, where he worked ten times as hard as a neurotypical kid to do things like order his lunch, wait patiently in line, take turns on the playground, and reach out to see of the other kids want to play with him—all with a mask on his little face.
After school, he kept that mask on while we ran into the grocery store, where he was assaulted by a million sights, smells and sounds. He didn’t make a peep. He walked patiently next to me even though the freezer aisles were cold and the fish counter smelled funny.
Once at home, he kept his clothes and shoes on while I packed our dinner, and waited for my husband to get home. He buckled himself back into his car seat while we drove to the park. Even though the baby cried and the music was loud, he didn’t complain.
By the time we get to the park for dinner at 5 pm, he’s on hour 10 of sensory overload. He tries his best, but he is only five. When I offer him dinner, he can’t imagine taking a bite, dealing with the taste, temperature, smell and texture of his food. It’s too much more. He calmly says, “No dinner. Just Prime Video.”
I can tell by the way he looks at me with his big brown eyes and his floppy red hair that he is not “refusing to eat and demanding a phone.” He is mustering up his hard-earned communication skills to express his need for a break in the only way he currently knows how.
He has worked so hard to learn how to do this before he gets to the point of no return. Asking for screen time is how he advocates for his own needs.
When you see him with a phone, “ignoring” the rest of the family, what you’re actually seeing is evidence of how far he has come.
And if you look closely, you’ll see that he’s not ignoring us. Every few minutes, he will peek up from the screen and sneak a little bite of dinner, ready now to fill his belly.
When the baby lets out an unbelievably loud belch, you will see the corner of his mouth curl into a smile, revealing his missing tooth and his affinity for body-noise humor.
You will see my sweet boy lay his head on my arm for a few seconds, or absent-mindedly stroke my hand while he watches letters and numbers dance across his screen.
Eventually my older son will finish eating and ask Walker if he wants to go play on the swings.
And then you’ll see the phone on the table, video still playing, abandoned by his little hands as he runs across the park hand in hand with his brother, racing as fast as they can so they can secure two swings side by side. His break was enough. He’s ready to join us again.
For some kids, screen time is more than entertainment.
Next time you’re tempted to judge, I hope you’ll remind yourself that you don’t know the whole story. When your kid is a little different, you learn to do things a little differently. And if there’s one thing my boy can teach you, it’s that he may be different, but “different is definitely not less.”