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Exactly How Much Screen Time is Too Much Screen Time? #askingforafriend
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

As I rubbed the little tummy of my first precious newborn with one hand and scrolled through my phone with the other, I spotted a fairly terrifying article in a noteworthy news site that featured faces of toddlers as they watched television. Slack-jawed and hunched over, the kids stared wide-eyed at screens, looking more zombie than human.

I inhaled that delightful new baby smell at my sleeping daughter’s neck, kissed her chubby little cheek, and vowed that she would never be one of those zombie children.

Yet here we are. Five years, one sibling, and a global pandemic later… 

Bring on the zombies so mama can get a break.

Sesame Street was our gateway drug when my oldest turned one. It seemed innocent enough. After all, it was educational. I had grown up on it, and I turned out fine…I think. Super Simple Songs and Cocomelon, rotations of toddler melodies with accompanying cartoons, came next. But those are just, like, music with pictures. They helped us get through physical therapy appointments and car trips. They hardly counted as TV. Blaze and the Monster Machines was math. Super Why! was reading. Paw Patrol was…teamwork and problem-solving, I guess?

The current most-requested “show” by my two preschoolers is…drumroll, please…YouTube videos of random kids playing with dolls. *Covers eyes and shakes head.*

Now that one—my shameful secret, my electronic babysitter—is harder to justify. 

Among my parent friends, Covid-related screen time is something everyone jokes about but never quantifies. We all assume kids are watching more television…but is it, like, an hour a day? Five hours a day? Do video games count? Can Bubble Guppies be filed under “educational” TV?

When a mom friend in my building was unfortunately struck with Covid at the same time as her husband and their three-year-old daughter, I suggested that she throw out screen time rules and let her daughter watch allllll the TV. She texted me: "I totally am. She's watching, like, two whole hours of TV a day."

That stopped me in my tracks. 

Just a few weeks ago, my kids watched two hours of TV before breakfast. When we were all completely healthy.

I know it’s a pandemic winter and I’m trying to entertain active kids who are cooped up in a 1200-square foot, two-bedroom city apartment without a backyard…but am I a monster? Or do people lop hours off their screen time totals the same way they underplay the number of drinks they consume per week at their annual physical?

I started paying more attention to casual conversations about screen time and noticed that although parents openly joked about how much screen time their kids were getting, nobody actually mentioned a number of hours. Or if they did, the number was really low. I would see a Facebook post that said something like, “I’m done parenting for today. I put on an episode of ‘Paw Patrol’ and then bedtime!” Um…one episode is 22 minutes long. When it’s been a long week and I’m done parenting for the day, I turn on a feature-length movie.

I needed answers. So I crowdsourced through my Instagram. In an extremely unscientific poll I created in my Instagram Stories, parents said that their kids were getting more screen time than they were comfortable with, noting that the amount was generally one to three hours a day. 

What was more interesting to me, though, were the parents who were brave enough to admit that their kids watched more than three hours of screens a day. The parents who admitted that their kids craved low-frills unboxing videos or recordings of other kids playing video games. The one brave mama who said that she left the TV on for so long one particular morning—while she relaxed and woke up slowly—that her kids took the initiative to turn it off. And guess what? She didn’t even feel guilty because the extra rest made her more active and involved with the kids that day. Imagine that.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed toddler expert Dr. Tovah P. Klein, author of How Toddlers Thrive and director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, for an article I was writing. Attempting to conduct phone interviews with preschoolers in earshot generally makes me incredibly anxious. I would try to focus on my job while bracing myself for the embarrassment of an audible sibling fight or a potty request. At the end of the interview, Dr. Klein said, “You have children? Where are they? I don’t hear anything.”

I joked, “Oh, that’s because I got them settled with the iPad and their favorite terrible YouTube show.”

I expected a chuckle of understanding, but I got something even better—validation.

Though of course living in a non-screen world is ideal, Dr. Klein said that screens may act as a necessary daily survival tool. They are one of our few methods of connection and indoor entertainment. She reassured me that that while screens may be our current reality, they don’t have to be our future. As the weather improves and people get vaccinated, families will naturally spend more time outdoors—away from screens. So there’s no need to stress if your kids are temporarily glued to screens (with parent-approved content) more often than you’d like.

As she spoke, I very nearly passed out with happiness. Dare I believe that I can stop feeling mom guilt about screen time? I felt like I needed a sign from the universe. The second I saw Amy Schumer endorse Dr. Klein the very next day, I handed out the iPads.

These days I’m trying my best to strike somewhat of a balance between working, playing with my kids, rotating their toys and setting up Busy Toddler-style activities. And when we all need a break from each other, I’m trying not to feel guilty about using screens as a handy tool. But I am trying to change up the type of TV we watch whenever possible.

I’m not forcing the girls to watch super educational stuff, but when I find a show that can teach as well as entertain, I really promote it. So hats off to Emily’s Wonder Lab that introduces my kids to the scientific method in an updated Mr. Wizard kind of way. Love to Izzy’s Koala Kingdom for showing footage of the most adorable critters on earth and the sweet veterinarian’s daughter who cares for them; it soothes and delights as well as it informs. And cheers to Bluey for helping both parents and kids use social-emotional skills, imagination, and laughter to get through the day.

And as for those terrible YouTube videos of random kids playing with dolls…I’m even grateful for you. I doubt that you’re teaching my kids anything useful, but you allow me to work in peace when necessary. I can’t wait until you’re in the rearview mirror, but at the same time, I don’t know how we would have survived this pandemic winter without you.

RELATED: Toddlers and Television: Everything You Need to Know Before Firing Up ‘Paw Patrol’

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