A health professional visited our playgroup a little while ago. Inevitably, she bought up screen time. “It’s just so tragic to see these active children turn into a shell of themselves! They just sit there, immobile, blank looks on their faces!”
The other parents nodded.
One mum bought up that viral Huffington Post article featuring a series of photographs of children’s faces lit by the glow of screens, mouths agape, hooded eyes. “Screens turn them into zombies!”
I hate that series of photos, partly because it’s such an aggressively invasive thing to do – to capture people’s expressions when they’re unaware and vulnerable – but also because my children don’t often act that way in front of screens.I couldn’t help myself. “That’s interesting to me, to hear you say that. Because my kids’ favorite program is ‘Diego’, and when they watch that they are up on their feet, doing the jogging, cheering the responses. And even when it isn’t an action show, I watch my children wriggling to the edge of their seat in excitement. They are laughing and nodding and smiling.”
Funnily enough, all the parents began nodding again. “Yes! They get so in to it, it’s almost as if the characters are their friends!”
“My kids love Peppa Pig so much that they dance in their seats the whole way through it.”
“It is the highlight of their day!”
In one minute the conversation went from despair about screens to warm fuzzies about the enjoyment screens bring our children.
How to explain these reactions?We’re in a tough situation as parents in 2017. We are breaking new ground. We are the first generation to raise children in a digital world, and we’re grappling with all the information out there about screens. On one hand, we can see the pleasure our children get from them – and we want our children to enjoy their lives, don’t we? We also get to cook dinner without the 5 p.m. meltdowns that I suspect have haunted humankind for millennia. We can see that screens aren’t going anywhere, so we mustn’t try and act like they don’t exist. On the other hand, almost every time we scroll through our Facebook feed, we find at least one article banging on about how screens are damaging our children’s brains or creating violent teenagers or irreparably breaking our children’s relationship with nature. All evidence-based, apparently. We look at our hands, at the information piled up in them. We weigh the two sides, and brain damage and violence feels pretty damn heavy. So we opt in favor of our child’s brain, even knowing it will make them (and us) a little unhappier. Or we vote for happiness and feel wracked with guilt for raising a child with a slightly less than optimum brain, who will probably end up on a Most Wanted show for a violent outburst. What if the hand holding the evidence didn’t feel so weighty? What if that hand also held information about the neutral, or even good, side of screens? What if recent vigorous studies showed that screentime for teenagers had no bearing on their mental health – that, even in the most extreme use, only impacted mental health by about a third of the impact of missing breakfast? What if another recent study by the University of London found that toddlers who used tablets experienced no negative impact on developmental milestones? What if, in fact, the use of tablets correlated with the speedier development of fine motor skills? What if it had been proven that no relationship existed between use of screens and a lack of time outdoors? What if 100 eminent scientists were urging us to stop freaking out because the evidence used to scare us about screentime is baseless?
It’s not my business to tell you what to do about screens. We’re all forging our own path. All of our children are different. Each of our situations is different.But as a fellow loving parent and fellow pioneer in this bold new digital world, it feels important to share with you the shaky nature of the more popular science on screentime. It feels vital that we get clear on the fact that there are far worse things for our children than an ipad. As an advocate for child rights, I wanted to put some information into your hands that frees you up to make a decision that fits with your child’s wishes. If we dig a little deeper and open our minds a little more, it often happens that something our child wants can also be in their best interest. Decisions based on fear are not life-giving. All the scaremongering about screens makes zombies of the parents – not the children.