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Teach your children: Screens are good

Lisa Schmeiser | Aug. 11, 2015
When I first brought my daughter home from the hospital, I was so paranoid about how any sort of screen time would crack her fragile eggshell mind, I only permitted the television to be on when the baby was asleep. Even then, I insisted that we keep the television on mute; we relied on closed caption to try and keep up with what was going on. (Our success was mixed: Sons Of Anarchy had perfect transcriptions of biker mayhem, while a PBS series on the Big Apple Circus was basically rendered as gibberish.)

What kind of screen time is it? There's a big difference between the apps that encourage pattern recognition or offer some interactive, creative play (like Don't Let the Pigeon Run This App) versus the ones that basically reward a kid for clicking on a teddy bear as a narrator plows ahead in a story. And there's a big difference between any app and noninteractive videos played on a mobile device or TV. I'm more likely to let the screen time tick up to 20--30 minutes if the kiddo's tootling around Toca Lab than if we're watching the "Think Pink" number from Funny Face for the fourth time in a row.

How much screen time has my child had this week? My daughter and I have a girls' night every Tuesday: a shared pineapple-pepperoni pizza and two episodes of Sofia the First on Netflix. Because that's 40 minutes of passive entertainment, I make sure she has no screen time at all on Mondays or Wednesdays. I try to look at screen time in the aggregate: if we can keep her averaging at or below 30 minutes per day every week, that's a win in my book.

Will a parent be around? We don't allow unsupervised screen time, and we are not above pausing a Sofia the First episode to talk about something that twigs our parental radar. We also keep a close eye on how our child is interacting with a game--is this the kind of thing where her imagination will grab the fodder and run, or is this app very limited in what it allows a child to explore? This is a new way to do family time, and it has helped me examine my adult relationship to technology as entertainment.

She can choose to be the boor who spends an entire meal staring at her smartphone screen once she's grown up and moved out of my house.

All these questions circle around a few core ideas: Knowing your child's personality and teaching your child to how to treat technology as one well-regulated element in their daily life. If you don't want your kid to be a mindless zombie in front of a screen, you can't mindlessly shove them in front of one.

My final tech-policy measure: The iPad and both phones have a security code so the kiddo can't launch anything on her own. She can--and has--snuck off with the iPad, but since she can't open anything, it's a lowly prop in her own open-ended imaginative play, where it's anything from her clipboard during "animal clinic" to her cookbook when she's playing chef.

I'm taking that as a win.


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