By now, you probably know the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests parents avoid exposing their infants and children (under age two) to screens of any kind (e.g. TV, smart phones, iPads, etc.). This makes a lot of sense, right? Those little brains are specially geared toward learning through hands-on exploration and face-to-face interaction. That, and the research confirms that little brains simply develop best when environments respond to their actions in real time. After all, no cartoon knows the exact moment to return your kiddo’s silly smile, and the iPad just doesn’t feel as exciting on little fingers as soft sand, cool water, and spiky grass.
At the same time, keeping kids away from screens in the 21st century is HARD! Even without much prior exposure, our son is drawn to screens like a cute, little, wide-eyed moth to a flame, and I know he’s not the only one. Nothing screams “EXCITEMENT!!!” in the brain like bright lights, movement, and sounds (Las Vegas, anyone?). For the curious mind that has never experienced such stimulation, screens of all kinds can be understandably magnetic.
For some reason, I thought it would be “easy” to keep a kiddo as young as ours (a young toddler) away from screens; we’re the parents, so we should easily be able to remove access to media, right?! WRONG! In our case, it wasn’t as easy as I hoped.
In our experience, these have been some of the challenges:
- Access: Screens. Are. Everywhere. In our home, we have no fewer than three TVs, two laptops, a desktop computer, two iPads, and two smart phones. Oh yeah, and a video baby monitor (that our kiddo loooooves to play with when it’s left within reach). And that’s before we’ve even left the house! Turns out, almost every other adult has a smart phone too, which, if left unattended, is like crack to any kid within toddling distance. Speaking of which — sorry to all friends/family/strangers who’ve had their phone mauled by my child, and that number is countless.
- We like screens, too, and more than we knew: Having to think about our son’s screen exposure has really forced us to think about our own. To be honest, it helped us to realize how often we tend to mindlessly turn on the TV, check Facebook, or watch YouTube. We also began to notice that each time we “checked in” with a screen, we end up “checking out” of an interaction with our son, which just felt rotten in retrospect.
- Is there an app for meltdowns?: Oh my. Hell hath no fury like a toddler’s tantrum when you pry a smart phone from his hands. Need I say more?
- Screens “work”: There are simply times when mama could use a break. It is sooooo tempting to end a tantrum with a video, and to let my child play with my phone in bed while I rest my eyes for a few minutes. And I say this, having done both myself (and then had a hint of guilt about it).
We aren’t perfect, by any means. On our best days, our little guy has no screen exposure, which is ideal. But we’ve also come to accept that it makes the most sense for our family to allow some exceptions. These are the spots we’ve chosen to let things slide:
- Travel: Plane rides and long car trips are survival mode, plain and simple. I will use nearly any tactic to entertain my kiddo in these situations, and that includes videos on the phone. I like showing him videos of himself, which makes me feel strangely and inexplicably better about it.
- Skype/FaceTime: Since one set of grandparents live out of state, our little guy doesn’t get to see them in person very often. But he sees them every weekend on Skype, which everyone loves. Although it’s via screen, he’s getting the loving and responsive feedback that his little brain craves during these calls. It also helps him to continue building his relationships with his family far away. Win-win!
- Nail trimming: They teach diapering in baby classes, but they really need to tack on a lesson in trimming tiny nails when the hands attached to them are constantly wiggling. One solution that works for some is total engagement on a screen. And I’m totally okay with that.
- Feeling under the weather: When I was sick as I kid, my only desire was to lay on the couch and watch game shows. Call it sentimentality or pain management, but when my son is feeling really sick, I’m okay with allowing the distraction of a screen to take his mind off the pain (when he doesn’t have the energy to engage with much else). It’s also helpful when you need to administer medication that is, shall we say, resisted?
- Time-limited programming: There are just times when screen media is only (or best) available at an inconvenient time for kid exposure. For example, the Super Bowl. I’m not a football fan, but I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to stick to my no-screen policy during the Olympics this year.
Keep fighting the good fight, fellow mamas! It’s tough, and no two families will make the same decisions in this area. But please know that you’re not alone in your mental conflict about this topic . . . and the experts are talking about updating the recommendations later this year.