Saying “Yes” to Screen Time With Purpose

by ParentCo. November 18, 2016

little girl  with legs stretched out on a bed using mobile phone

Right when I found out I was pregnant – okay, before I was even trying to get pregnant – I was amazed at all of the things that could harm a fetus. Coffee. Alcohol. Unpasteurized cheese. Deli meats. Fish. Cider. Bean sprouts. Litter boxes. Nail salons. Heavy lifting. The list got increasingly ridiculous. And that list of dangers was nothing compared to what could damage or kill my (at that time, still hypothetical) baby once it was born.

Mercifully for me and everyone around me, Emily Oster’s Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong – and What You Really Need to Know was released when I was just a few months pregnant. Oster, an economist at The University of Chicago, who was faced with similar lists of don’ts during her first pregnancy, decided to do what economists do: study all of the existing medical literature on pregnancy risks and crunch the data.

Her book is an excellent resource for those who want to better understand the actual risks of partaking in various activities (drinking a glass of wine, cleaning the litter box) so that they can make informed decisions. If you’re currently pregnant or know someone who is, buy this book!

Oster, who now writes for FiveThirtyEight, has turned her attention to screen time. Like Oster, I grew up under the “one hour rule” for television. My recently-acquired library of parenting books all recommend no screen time for infants and very little for older kids. But this shift from “no television” to “no screen time,” Oster argues, obscures what it is we are actually doing with all of the different screens in our lives.

We use screens to passively watch television and movies, but we also use them to play video games, read books, and write blog posts, among other things. In her review of the medical literature on the adverse effects of screen time, Oster found that some types of screen time offered no ill effects:

“Based on my read of the evidence, I’d say there’s absolutely no reason to think there’s anything worse about using a screen to do activities you would otherwise do on paper.”

This was extremely refreshing to read after years of hearing about the evils of screen time. Until recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics held the position that children should not be exposed to screen time until age two. In their recently revised guidelines, the AAP lowers this age to 18 months. Although the evidence for that limit is still unclear, it’s reasonable that the AAP wants parents to favor more active and social activities over screen use.

What’s most exciting about the revised guidelines is the AAP’s distinction between different kinds of media. Along with the new guidelines, they released a Media Plan tool. “By creating a Personalized Family Media Use Plan,” they suggest, parents “can be aware of when you are using media to achieve your purpose. This requires parents (and) users to think about what they want those purposes to be.” The AAP’s focus on purpose echoes Oster’s argument about screen use.

Thinking about screens as paper has helped me feel less guilty – and more creative – about screen time. I’m focused less on counting the minutes or half hours elapsed and instead using my phone to engage with my son as I might on paper. What follows are three simple ways we’re using the screen to focus on traditionally paper-based goals of reading, communicating, and drawing.


In the past few weeks, D has discovered letters all around him and loves to call out the letters he sees on grocery store displays, road signs, and book covers. Imagine, then, how excited he was when he realized he could make his own letters. He doesn’t have the motor skills for drawing, but he can type.

We have spent hours at the computer typing. He’s now good enough with the alphabet that he can take dictation, so I have him type words like “Mama” or “Grover” or “Bunny.” Recently, D discovered that he can change the color of his typing, which led to pages and pages of multicolored text. Our near-daily typing is helping D learn letters and form words.


D is too young to type words independently, but he is old enough to send emoji messages to his dad (and one of his cousins – my apologies to his mom). There’s plenty of healthy debate over “Emojigeddon,” but I imagine the naysayers have never watched their two-year-olds sending emoji-laden text messages.

D was having fun discovering all of the little pictures, but when he realized that he could use those little pictures to communicate with his dad, things got even more adorable: “I send you a cake!” “Dad send me a train!” Just make sure you have unlimited texting before you hand over your phone.


For my kid, who loves Color Crew (I could do without this one – crayon friends rat each other out to an eraser for coloring things “wrong,” but I digress...), I chose Paint Kid for iPhone. This app makes it easy to download your child’s scribbles to your Camera Roll for printing and framing.

This story was originally published on the authors blog, snackdinner.



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