The XX Factor

All Work and No Screen Time Makes Mom a Dull Parent   

Elmo, Bert, and Ernie are not villains.

Photograph by Marcel Antonisse/AFP/Getty Images.

Just last week in Slate, Farhad Manjoo wrote that complete prohibitions on toddler’s screen times don’t make sense. But this week, the American Academy of Pediatricsis sticking to its guns, even though, as the Washington Post reports, 90 percent of parents with kids under 2 will let them watch TV or play on the computer.

I understand where the AAP is coming from. They look at the amount of time people—children and grownups—spend watching TV or looking at a screen, and they look at the ever-increasing obesity rates, and the only sensible answer seems to be recommending that we chuck the boob tube. But their recommendations are so draconian that of course 90 percent of parents aren’t going to follow them.

What struck me is their recommendation that “discourages the use of background television intended for adults when a young child is in the room.” Whaaa? For the 12 or so hours that your toddler is awake, the TV shouldn’t even be on. This might sound annoying but feasible for parents of an only child, but how is this supposed to work when you have multiple kids? Banish television for the first six to eight years of their lives?

Had we followed the AAP guidelines of not even having the TV on in the background, my oldest (who was 5 at the time, and well old enough for a moderate amount of television) would not have been able to become completely enamored with Michael Phelps during the 2008 Summer Olympics, which prompted in him a huge interest in swimming (he’s now on a swim team), an extremely healthy pastime. Had we followed the AAP guidelines, it would have been only in the past few months that we could have established our routine of having “family movie night” on Friday where we gather round ye olde flatscreen and laugh to whatever animated feature we’re in the mood for. After a long and busy week, it’s quality family time that I don’t think we could get from two hours of playing with Hot Wheels or building block towers.

Sane and practical parents have written on the non-detriments of having moderate screen time for little ones: the ability to cook dinner without worrying that fingers will get poked into sockets or that the sauce will burn while a parent rushes to prevent that.  So it’s unnecessary to rehash all that.

But what really gets to me about the AAP’s suggestion that the TV never be on and adult always nearby is that it leads to parental guilt and lends itself to the idea that we must all be helicopter parents. If your child is awake, you should be rolling a ball back and forth or dipping their hands in finger paint or reading Knuffle Bunny for the 27th time or building the Eiffel Tower out of macaroni with them. However optimal this might seem for the little one, it can be exhausting for a parent and deaden their enthusiasm for quality time together.

So maybe it’s tnot ideal tha 2½-year-old can sing part of the Phineas and Ferb theme song. But as long as he’s getting as much Pete the Cat and time with his toy trains and playing hide-and-seek, I’m not going to lose any sleep.