When my son Avi was about 18 months old, one of his favorite tricks was to reach into my pocket while roaring like a tiger. This was his way of asking me to play Daniel Tiger videos on my phone. Like many modern parents, I worry about Avi’s exposure to media—and about how I can navigate the tricky territory of technology use with a young child. However, the reality of my life as a working mother (and sometimes-solo-parent) often means that a well-timed video is my only chance to prepare dinner, take a shower, or get through a few things that can’t wait until the next day.
The overuse of technology has become the number one parenting concern in the United States. The modern rhetoric around screens and kids, especially little kids, leans heavily on the American Association of Pediatrics’ (AAP) 1999 recommendations—and the advice, often alarmist in tone, cautions parents to reduce, if not eliminate, screen time for children.
The public discussion around media and children does not help either. Articles like this one highlight technophobic and, arguably, privileged views of children’s screen time among Silicon Valley elite. Others seem aimed at panicking or shaming parents.
Many of these opinions amplify especially troubling outcomes that typically do not affect most children or families. Importantly, they are out of sync with the digital world we live in and with the AAP’s updated recommendations that reflect the broader research consensus about the potential of media—when used thoughtfully, in age-appropriate ways—to promote positive outcomes for children.
Experts argue that screen time is an outdated concept—and that quality and joint engagement are more helpful to parents who want to create a healthy media environment for their children. There’s mounting evidence that social interaction is a key ingredient for learning, highlighting the importance of adults talking with, rather than at or around, children. There’s also reason to believe that media can catalyze the kinds of interactions that are beneficial for children’s learning and development.
Take this viral video, for example. Here, comedian DJ Pryor is chatting with his toddler son, Kingston, while they’re watching a television show together. Although little Kingston contributes primarily by babbling, DJ does a masterful job of picking up and returning Kingston’s conversational serves with substantive contributions of his own. The result is a legit conversation between a parent and a child structured around a shared media experience. This kind of joint engagement, where media offers a starting point and a scaffold for rich interaction, may be more important than setting time limits on access to screens.
Doing away with screen time is not only unrealistic for my life, but it’s also a double standard in a home where the two adults use their laptops and mobile phones for a substantial amount of work and play. Balance is key and while I don’t claim to have found the answer, my family is evolving towards something that’s working for us: an imperfect mix of media use, conversation and storytelling, and, admittedly, a little electronic babysitting that helps us all hang on to our sanity.
Relatable experiences, characters that model positive traits, and the potential to stimulate comments and questions are some of the characteristics of the media we love. There’s a reason why Daniel Tiger was one of Avi’s first shows. “Daniel Shares his Tigertastic Car” and “Daniel’s Birthday” have given us a language for familiar but abstract things like sharing and disappointment. “Daniel Visits the Doctor” has helped us prepare for many a pediatric appointment. From “Dinosaur Train,” Avi has learned to say, “I’m buddy and I have a hypothesis,” and now he even knows what that means. From “Puffin Rock” and “Tumble Leaf,” he has learned how to channel his curiosity and explore things in the world around him.
When it comes to choosing media, my family favors public media. There’s a wide variety of thoughtful, developmentally appropriate content available on our local PBS channel and on platforms like PBS KIDS that strike the right balance between education and engagement. While experimenting with shows on streaming services, I make it a point to preview the shows first, often using the content questions in Lisa Guernsey’s 3-C’s framework to guide my yay/no decisions.
I often join Avi when he’s watching a show or playing with an app. I ask him questions about things we’re watching and doing, point out things that are interesting to me, and relate the things in the show or the app to our real life. He’s an interactive viewer—he giggles and laughs when he’s watching something, though not always at the ‘right’ places, and I have learned to stop and ask him why.
While this type of interaction is ideal, I don’t always have the luxury of engaging in it in the moment. If I’m busy when Avi is watching a video or playing with an app—after all, sometimes media helps me make dinner or fold the laundry—I try to make it a point to talk about the show afterward, at dinner or bath time, or sometimes even when we are in the car. He tells me what he thinks, and while it’s not always coherent, it sure is fun to listen.
Whether it’s in the moment or later, my goals for talking with my son are always the same. I model the kind of behaviors that I know are associated with learning and I support his engagement in those behaviors. I make predictions, ask questions, use my own language and experiences to expand on what my son says, and express curiosity. In other words, I watch shows with my son in the same way I read books with him: I follow his pace, aim for serve and return, and create spaces where we can share things and learn together. I know I don’t need to know the answers to everything, but it’s important that I remain open to exploring the questions that we come up with together.
Sometimes the media content leaks off the screen into our life, into our play and storytelling. I have the Peep Family Science app on my phone, and watching the videos and animated stories about ramps has led to hours of fun for my family. The playground has become a laboratory as we experimented with how objects moved down ramps, developed a language for talking about it (some things roll while other things slide), and, with the help of some corrugated cardboard and a staircase, fashioned some ramps of our own. And sometimes, the media helps us enjoy the reading and storytelling that happens off screen. Please, Baby, Please has been a favorite book for years, well past the time I thought Avi would grow out of it—and there’s an animated version of Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee reading it aloud that’s in regular rotation at our house.
I’m painting a rosy picture, but I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that our system is far from perfect. Like all families, we have breakdowns from time to time, and we struggle with them. I had to pick Avi up early from daycare yesterday as he was running a slight temperature, but I still had a few things to do to finish my work day. It was companionable to sit on the couch together, doing parallel play with our respective media—he was watching videos and I was working on the draft of this blog—but he wasn’t ready to stop after two videos as we’d agreed and the discussion ended in tears. The irony, that my son was melting down over our screen time negotiations at the same time I was working on this blog, wasn’t lost on me.
Although my husband and I are pretty relaxed about screen time, we have some clear boundaries. The television comes on only when we’re intentionally watching something—it’s rarely on in the background. There are no screens while we’re eating or before bed time. We prioritize spending time outdoors and in the company of other children and adults over staying home. We’re lucky to live in a place where going to the playground is an option almost all year round, but even when it isn’t, we try to find something to do where we can move our bodies. I’ve learned the hard way that burning energy is key to a successful afternoon nap, and getting outside also keeps us (adults and children) away from the temptation of screens.
In the short time that I have been a mom, I’ve learned that change is the only constant in parenting. Similarly, the landscape of media and children is constantly shifting, as emerging research highlights new ways of using and learning from technology that resonate with the reality of being a family in 2019. As a result, I find that I’m evolving—as a media user and a parent who uses media with her child—as my practices change to keep pace with my kid and with what we’re learning about media and kids.
I’m honest about my evolution, and I share my thinking with Avi when I can. For example, I have recently started explaining why I am fond of some shows while I reject others, and why I have begun vetoing some shows that he used to be allowed to watch. He doesn’t always agree with me, but it’s become important to me that he hears my thinking out loud. After all, I don’t have to be right—I just need to work on modeling thoughtfulness and reflection.
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