With the prolific availability and ease of use of all types of kid-centered digital entertainment in today’s world, I knew it would be difficult to keep it out of my boys’ lives. But I was determined to try. At least for their first few years of life.
I had a gut feeling that too much screen time could hinder children’s’ mental development, and certainly we’ve all heard the stats on today’s childhood obesity epidemic, but it wasn’t until I started reading up on it myself that I began to understand the effects screen time has on kids: reduced vocabulary during the toddler years, limited attention spans for school-age children, even infants were shown to have decreased responsiveness to their own parents’ faces as a result. Enough said; I was convinced.
In the beginning it was fairly easy. I’d never been a big TV watcher myself so keeping it turned off during my son’s waking hours wasn’t that difficult. I used my iPhone for music and photo-taking but otherwise kept it out of his sight. Now that he’s three, we still keep the TV off and digital devices tucked away, though he’s getting a sense that what could be on those screens could be pretty entertaining. But by making our phones simply off-limits, he never really asks, and, as an added benefit, we are forced to disconnect when we’re with our kids, too, giving more of our attention to them.
I have seen, even felt, what a screen can do. We recently walked into a restaurant with menus on large, animated screens. My 10-month old stopped babbling, stopped waving his arms about, and just went limp in my arms as he stared at this brightly lit rectangle before him. We’ve strolled into the postal center where a big screen TV sits behind the counter. My 3-year old stopped reading his book and instead slumped in the stroller still with eyes aglaze as he watched the basketball game on the screen.
It’s not that all the content is bad. No doubt there is a plethora of highly-researched, well-scripted kids programming available with educational moments, likable characters and tolerable songs. But for me, singing, talking and playing with my boys – or even allowing them to sit idle, forming their own thoughts and questions in their heads – is a better choice. Though some days seem long, and I can very easily recall a particularly challenging cross-country flight not less than 48 hours ago, I try to channel my mother’s words, “Enjoy your children. They won’t be babies for long.”
Friends wonder, “So, how do you manage to keep them entertained?” We’re active. Very active. . . parks, playgrounds, walks, swimming pools, museums, classes, rides on trains, rainy day dance parties, art projects, cooking and baking together, even attending children’s theater performances. Errands become expeditions and chores become group activities.
There are definitely times when I wish I could just slip my 3-year old the iPhone for a few minutes, so I can order dinner, sleep a few extra minutes in the morning or have a grown-up conversation. But I almost always choose to make him part of the process instead, showing him the different sections of the menu and reading the words to him. Inviting him to cuddle with us in bed and look at a book in the wee hours of the morning. Asking him what he thinks about the planter boxes we’re considering for our landscaping. Pointing out to him the construction equipment on the other side of the car window.
And we have books. Oh, so many books! We keep Highlights magazines at the kitchen table for meal-time boredom and stacks of books in the car, the diaper bag, and every other room of the house. I frequently scour Amazon for books with the maximum number of “lift the flaps.” We are regulars at the library.
Certainly we aren’t perfect. I do give in to five minutes of Thomas the Train about once every ten days, so I can trim those little fingernails. And, oh, how he looks forward to his manicures! But I really don’t think my boys are missing out on anything by my withholding screens this early on. At the rate technology is going, they will have plenty of time to stare at TVs, laptops, and phones the rest of their lives.