Yes, we should limit how much time our kids spend in front of screens, but we're going about it the wrong way
I spend a lot of time feeling guilty as a dad. I’m constantly questioning my decisions. Were those organic eggs healthy enough, or should I have included some kale? Am I setting the right boundaries by sending my three-year-old to her room for five minutes when she throws a temper tantrum? And the most frequent: am I letting her watch too much television?
The TV question is a big one because, like most parents in America, I know some studies suggest that television can inhibit a child’s development. I know about suggested screen-time limits, and I constantly worry that I’m breaking them when my daughter watches Sesame Street or Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated those suggested screen-time guidelines, changing its most well-known suggestion—no screen time before the age of two—to take into account technologies like Skype and Apple’s FaceTime. Pediatricians now say we shouldn’t worry about letting our young kids look at or talk to their grandparents through a screen, at least occasionally. They also say it’s now OK for kids from 18 months to five years to watch some educational television as long as an adult is there to help them interpret and learn from the show.
Let’s be honest: for most of us parents, television is a way to distract our child. We always ensure that our three-year-old is watching educational television, but neither of us want to interact while she’s glued to the screen. We need the television to give us a 30-minute break so we can enjoy a glass of wine in peace or do the dishes without a toddler hanging off our legs.
And our daughter doesn’t want us interacting with her when she’s watching TV. Like most kids her age, she has lots and lots of energy and big developing emotions, neither of which she knows how to control. For her, some checked-out distraction is nice every once in a while. Instead of getting lectured to about not jumping on her younger brother, she can shut off for a minute, 30, or—alert the parenting cops—even 60 minutes. We save our interaction time for when we’re playing with her throughout the rest of the day, explaining things about the world like why leaves change colors and reading books like Ladybug Girl before bed.
In the United States, parents—moms in particular—are under enormous pressure to do things in societally approved ways. They are then shamed if they don’t follow these strict guidelines. Moms are supposed to breast-feed, not use formula. They’re supposed to have natural births, not get an epidural. They’re supposed to stay home, not send their kids to daycare. Parents should feed their kids organic food, sign them up for organized sports, and, of course, not let them watch too much television. And that’s the crux of the issue: the new pediatric guidelines, just like the old ones, suggest that there’s a perfect way to interact with the TV.
I think there’s a more holistic way to think about these guidelines, including how your kids interact with the television. Yes, we should limit how much TV our children watch. And sure, if we have a second to help them understand a segment of Sesame Street, that’s great. But as parents, we should also read those guidelines with a grain of salt and remember they’re just guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. If we don’t follow them, we’re not going to ruin our children. This kind of real-world thinking—both from parents and the AAP—would take off some of the unnecessary pressure.
It might also help if the AAP offered an alternative. The organization has released suggestions for how much time children should spend playing in fresh air. There are also many studies that have proven the benefits of playing in the park or woods. Promoting those guidelines in addition to those for screen time would at least give parents an alternative. Of course, I try to be realistic here, too. My family doesn’t make it to the park every day, but we do try to wrestle in the front yard or ride bikes down the street. On weekends, we do our best to go bigger. Maybe it’s a hike in the nearby mountains. In winter, it’s a trip to the local ski area to work on snowplowing. When we’re outside, at least, it’s nice that television is a distant thought for all of us.