Friday Family Movie Night: Babies and Screens
While it would be a stretch to say my kids' screentime is very limited, when my husband is away (in the military, he's currently serving the second of two one-year tours in Kuwait) the TV is usually off. The boys might watch a half-hour or hour on school days, and usually go on a Saturday morning Pokemon and Ben 10 jag if we're home. There's Friday night movie night -- which we'll skip on particularly exhausting weeks. Of course, I don't have a baby, but when Think Out Loud came on this Friday morning, discussing new AAP recommendations that parents with kids under two limit the TV to zero, I immediately thought back to my very different household when my boys were babies and toddlers; in a word, TV rich.
My husband grew up in a household where TV was on all the time, and his young adulthood, when he lived with his siblings, only reinforced this habit. It's hard to get the TV off in my house when he's around, and more so when the kids were younger and he had the (according to the AAP, highly mistaken) viewpoint that they wouldn't watch the TV if it wasn't meant for them. So, my boys grew up, likewise, to the sound of Law & Order and NCIS and other procedural dramas. I'm going to paraphrase the guest on TOL, University of Washington professor of medicine Dimitri Christakis: this is keeping us all from paying attention to our kids and interacting in the way babies need. "It holds your attention," he said, mentioning studies that show how hard it is for us to see anything else when the TV is on.
I had to laugh, a little, when another caller asked the question I was about to ask (as I washed dishes and listened to NPR instead of interacting with my own kids), is radio just as bad? How about NPR? Christakis kind of skirted that question, by emphasizing the difference between TV and music radio -- it's the visual part of TV that sucks us in.
What we get from this new recommendation is not much different in tone than the message in the SpongeBob study: when we're turning the TV on to get something done, it's not good for the kids. We should be interacting with them instead of setting them in front of the tube. Christakis said that he gets all the time, "but how am I supposed to make dinner if I don't turn on the TV?" His answer: parents for millennia have been making dinner without TV, and with current estimates on how much TV kids are actually watching -- it's four or five hours for many toddlers (a DAY, and I know there have been times when that has been the reality in my house, and it kills me to think of it) -- he asks, "how much of a break do parents need?" Kids this age are, after all, only awake for 10 or 12 hours a day.
On one hand, I agree with a friend on Facebook, who (and I know her son watches little TV, comparatively) took the radio program as opportunity to tell all the parents she knows that they're doing a great job and can just stop listening to the media criticism of the job they're doing (thank you!). On the other hand, I want to agree with Christakis. Really, I don't need that much of a break from my kids. And honestly -- they're fine without screens. They can occupy themselves for hours with sticks and a field of grass, or pinecones and fences to climb, or the room full of Hot Wheels and Thomas trains and dress-up clothes and stuffed animals. I get plenty of break (during which I can wash dishes, do laundry, and make dinner all I want. Yay!).
(Aside: When Monroe was a baby, TV wasn't an effective distractor for him. There was no such thing as TV giving me a break -- most of my cooking was done with him strapped to my back. It wasn't until he was older than two that TV had any benefit in the "break" realm. I know this is true for many parents of babies, and it always has me questioning these blanket criticisms of parents.)
But the times when we've made rules about screentime (including DS games and computer/iPod), it's not so much that the kids can't find any way to get by, but they feel cheated. Their friends all get to (fill in the blank)! And so, any temporary screen peace is overwhelmed by that feeling of deprivation. It's a cultural expectation, and the only way to get kids to be ok with it, is to change the culture (even temporarily; my kids have existing happily on camping trips without screens).
If I had to pick something -- if you held my feet to the fire and said, "make a policy recommendation," -- I'd go TV-light without much handwringing. I think it's best for the kids. On the other hand, I can't imagine foregoing it entirely; I like a couple of hours of engaging in a cinematic drama every two or three days. While I wish I had been one of those teetotalling parents while my kids were babies, I love the balance we have now: a bit of TV, when we need our brains to turn off for a while. This is how much break I need: about six or seven hours a week. How about you?