What’s the deal with Screentime and babies
April 29, 2018 6:47 AM   Subscribe

As my due date approaches my husband and I are discussing how we are going to handle Modern Parenting. A huge subtopic is screen time. It looks like the American Academy of Pediatrics advises no screen time under 18 months except for video chatting, and after that 1 hour per day. I’m wondering if these guidelines are realistic, and if parents and kids more or less follow them?

Before 18 months, ok that makes total sense to not expose kids to screens.

My husband and I are not tech people. We work very untechnical / blue collar jobs and we have no reason to be tied to our phones all the time. HOWEVER I’m worried because I feel like my we ALREADY spend too much time staring at our phones! We don’t have a computer or a tablet but we both have smart phones and we have a TV.

I don’t know how to approach this. I babysit for 2 little brothers who both have iPads. They both basically have free reign over them. One kid is totally addicted and would be on the thing all day if he could. The other boy uses it as a tool - watches a show on it, then uses Pages to make up a quiz about the characters in the show. Or, uses the stopwatch to time a bunch of tasks he invents. I want my kid to have the second kids attitude!

It’s not really fair to impose the AAP limits when my husband and I zone out on our phones. I realize that I am putting the horse before the cart in a major way but parents of Mefi in this modern age, how do you handle this?

(This is so much more difficult than when I was little and could watch an hour of TV before bed!)
posted by pintapicasso to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Basically, you have to follow the rules you set for your kid. At least, that's how I feel about it. It makes no sense to impose limits on the kids that you won't be following as well. Is it hard? Of course it is. But parents did without screens for a jillion years before they were invented and did just fine.
posted by cooker girl at 7:15 AM on April 29, 2018

I would suggest not getting tied up (at least not for several more years) in the question of whether you adults have to follow the same rule as the baby/toddler/kid. For one thing, you won't have as much time to mess around on your phone, once you are raising a baby and then chasing a toddler. But also, the recommendations about kids are based on (arguably valid) ideas or science about brain development - therefore there is no reason why the same rules should necessarily apply to adults.

More generally, the guidelines seem to me like good ones but not ones that you should berate yourself if your life turns out differently in practice.
posted by sheldman at 7:20 AM on April 29, 2018 [13 favorites]

The main underlying concept, I think, is that interaction (with humans, with physical objects) is important brain-development stuff. The good news is that your baby will be cute and fun to interact with.
posted by sheldman at 7:24 AM on April 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

While I'm sure I spend too much time on screens and would benefit from following the same limitations I place on my kids, they have developing brains, and sadly I do not. I also don't let them drink alcohol or caffeine, yet I feel free to partake. Every study I've seen shows that the longer you delay screen time, the better it is for your kids.
posted by mzurer at 7:25 AM on April 29, 2018 [23 favorites]

If you read The Brain That Changes Itself, you’ll see that brain development never stops. It will be better for you to cut down on your screen time too.

With the two kids you babysit, what’s going on with the second kid is more complicated than attitude. My parents didn’t limit our TV, but I watched a lot less than my siblings. No idea why. I just wasn’t as interested and naturally preferred reading. I feel like it was lucky for me I was wired that way. But from what you’re saying here, you don’t want your child to be like the first kid. That means you’ll need to limit screen time.

It’s like food. You wouldn’t eat donuts all day, give your kid access to unlimited donuts, and just hope the kid will develop a preference for broccoli. And if you were currently on an all-donut diet, you would probably try to figure out how to change that for the sake of your child.
posted by FencingGal at 7:41 AM on April 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

It’s not really fair to impose the AAP limits when my husband and I zone out on our phones.

Less screen time for everybody! Kids are a great help in breaking out of screen-staring patterns, because they're an excuse for all kinds of fun activities. Reading aloud, singing, playing imaginary games, making art... it can be hard to motivate yourself to expend energy on these things when you're tired from work and screentime feels way easier and more immediately accessible, but it's easier to summon up the motivation (and give yourself the permission to be playful and silly) when it's on a kid's behalf. Take advantage of it!

If you find it difficult to wean yourself off of screens, apps which limit your overall time or which block you at particular times of day can help. The bonding time you both spend with your kid as a newborn should definitely be screen-free, so installing these now might help. Going forward, if you try to use your own screens less, your kid will get less exposure. You can't keep them away from devices forever, but limiting initial exposure may help them form interests beyond screens which will sustain them as they move into early school age and start feeling pressure to clamor for the device access their friends may get.
posted by halation at 7:51 AM on April 29, 2018

My son is nine now. And the one constant is he changes and the situation re screen time changes. Until he was about 3, it was a non-issue, we controlled access and he accepted that. Once he began to realise his own agency however, it became a very large part of ongoing and changing or rather adapting setting of rules on screen time. Personally I think going from 0 to 1 hour at 18 months is a bit much. For us, it was 10 -15 minutes together with me per day, from DVD s, not internet, from about age two. Most shows for this age are no longer. And to me it was important to do it together so i could understand what he was talking about. It moved to longer, and from about 4 he also did watch alone so I could thing s done. But the limit was 30 Minutes. From about 5 my husband gave him access to his ipad, which i think was a mistake in retrospect.
Once they start school everthing changes once more.

I think any rules can only work if you both are willing to enforce them. Give yourself time and don't feel you must know now, before birth. But keep talking about it.
posted by 15L06 at 7:54 AM on April 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think any rules can only work if you both are willing to enforce them.

Agreed - you have to agree on the limits as a couple, and then tell them to anyone who takes care of or plays with your kid. Do what you can to set limits ahead of time, to avoid fights when you're both tired and trying to figure out how to manage a new issue with your kid.

Our kids are older, and we limit screen time for them, and they in turn remind us to limit our screen time, which helps us all. Also, we have our own threshold of no screen time before 9 AM, which we don't always adhere to, but it helps everyone to have a fixed time as a reference.

And personally, I often have to remind myself that screen time is less important and interesting than family time, even though family time can take a lot of energy (especially when the kids are bigger - so much talking! :))

In the end, there are lots of guidelines that are good practices, but there are rarely hard and fast rules. Some days, everyone can use a break.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:08 AM on April 29, 2018

I think the thing that will be most helpful is ensuring your child can play independently (so that screen time isn’t needed as a babysitter). I read Janet Lansbury (website) all the time even though I’m not a parent - her guidance about supporting kids to become independent is gold.

FWIW as a teacher of elementary schoolers, I see lots of cases where too much screen time has interfered with social development in kids. When I have kids I plan to do little or no screen time until they are five or so.
posted by mai at 8:33 AM on April 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

We did zero screens until two, including requesting restaurant tables away from televisions, avoiding "interactive" displays, only using phones when the baby was asleep, etc. From then on, one parent has begun watching documentary-type videos with the kiddo, first only occasionally and now fairly regularly (a couple times a week), and sometimes lets the child "type" (for pre-literate values of typing) with a physical keyboard. We settled on "up to an hour a day, but not on consecutive days" as the broad rule for that, and even though you might think that's too vague for a toddler, they seem to understand just fine that "We watched videos yesterday, so we're not going to today. Maybe tomorrow." The other parent will occasionally show the child something on a phone or computer very briefly, and has many favorite songs on their phone. Both parents avoid phone usage when they're engaged with the child. We talk openly about how excessive screen use isn't healthy for anyone, especially developing children, and generally aim to present technology as a tool. One function of that "tool" is "to entertain," and that's fine, but we also talk about GPS routing, voice recording, cameras, "Bubble Level," etc.
posted by teremala at 8:35 AM on April 29, 2018

I think that this is a really personal thing, and that screen time and the ability to ration it are intrinsicly linked to social class. Is face to face interaction with actual human better for children? Yes, sure. Is screen time inherently worse for a child than, say, playing alone, with an adult who's kinda supervising but also making supper and trying to organize everything for the next morning? What if child is watching Sesame Street, or playing an educational game on the computer? What if they're doing something that isn't passive media consumption? That seems less clear cut, and at least when I was the parent of an infant, it wasn't something I could find much data on.

I was (and am) a single parent. My child has always had unlimited screen time partly out of necessity--it would be amazing if I could afford really good care so that someone was always ready to interact with my child when they wanted it, but that's not the experience that I've had. Sometimes putting my toddler in front of the television meant that I could make supper without them underfoot. Sometimes letting them play a video game meant that I got to lie on the sofa with my eyes closed for an hour when I had a headache. When I put my kid in daycare, there was always something on the television. I'm aware that in fancier daycares, this isn't the case, but in the daycare that I could afford, it was.

I'm not arguing that any of these are objectively amazing parenting choices, but I don't think that they were especially damaging, either. My kid is fiften now. They do pretty well in school, and are consistently praised for their reading and writing abilities, which I attribute almost entirely to internet use. They're online a lot, and play a lot of video games, but those descriptors also apply to me, and to many other adults I know.

I think that it's worth noting that Mefi in general tends to be well educated, white collar, and relatively affluent. I don't think that the answers you get in this thread should be viewed as universal truths, or as representative of what parents in your community or in similar situations choose. I'd also suggest that this isn't something you have to decide right now--you can see how you feel about it when the time comes, and see what your child's temperment is like, and what your family needs, and adapt accordingly.
posted by mishafletch at 9:15 AM on April 29, 2018 [53 favorites]

We did zero screens until 18 months, then 15-60 minutes of videos on weekends only (not counting sick days or long-distance car rides or airplane rides, in which case whatever gets us through it is fine). Mostly it's Dinosaur Train and Peg Plus Cat, or YouTube videos of animals or toys. None of us have iPads. We don't have any games on our phones and mostly use them as tools (we almost always narrate out loud what we are doing with our phones, e.g., "I'm finding out if that park is open right now", so he doesn't just see us staring at them), though occasionally we stray into scrolling through Facebook when we could be more engaged, which we do our very best to keep to a minimum. Kid is now 4 and sometimes uses a laptop to play Minecraft (with us; not by himself) and program a little robot toy.

My take on screen time is that there's nothing damaging about most kids' TV shows, and looking at a screen isn't actively screwing up brain development or anything (development isn't my field, but I do have a PhD in neuroscience). However, kids do need to be physically active for all kinds of reasons (not just burning calories) and outside time is pretty important for development of eyesight, and interaction with other humans is critical for language and emotional development. They also need down time to just relax (we do a 1-hour quiet time in the afternoon during which our son plays in his room by himself). So, assuming those needs are being met, TV's no great evil. We do less of it than I think would be acceptable because that's just our family culture. I think many people find (certainly we did) that there are certain ages where it can be very hard to stop watching, and if it's too addictive to let go of when it's time to do something else, it may be a good idea to set limits.

I do feel very strongly about exposing kids to advertising and I have pretty strong anti-consumerist feelings. So minimizing advertising in all forms has been a goal of mine from the very beginning, and for that reason I would never leave commercial TV on.

Our situation is that our son is in daycare/school 10 months out of the year, while we both work full-time (including frequent weekend work and staggered schedules to reduce the number of hours in daycare), and so far it's worked out that he's been home with one or the other of us for the other 2 months. Until very recently we have not had family nearby, and we don't have any babysitters or nannies or house cleaners or anything like that. We don't go out to eat more than once a month so we do have to cook at home every day. Neither of us grew up with screen time and we haven't found it necessary. It can be an extremely useful tool for certain circumstances, and usually a child's personality and needs are the most important determinant of parenting decisions. But it is definitely not required, and you can get by without it if that's important to you.
posted by Cygnet at 9:55 AM on April 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

As the mum of a 7 and 12 year old, what I can share is parent as deliberately as you can but stay flexible. We’ve run the gamut with long anti-screen periods, and then during life crises (emergency surgies, ante-natal hospitalization, work crises, grandparent aneurysms) we’ve allowed too much. It’s actually not true, as far as I can tell, that imperfect screen time policy kills a child’s abilities, if you stay in the game and aware.

Our strategy for our family is to find joyful things to do that are better than screen time when we can, but enjoy screens when we find that’s a good time too. It takes mindfulness every week really. When my oldest was about 18 months I had a virulent anti-screen policy and found myself with a massive sinus infection lying on the floor crying. I put on a Signing Time DVD and had a hot shower and was, frankly, a much better parent for the hours after that than I was before. But then I slid into a habit of screen time while I was making dinner...that went overboard so then I stepped back my expectations of dinner and we ate outside for a few months where we all enjoyed being away from electronic distractions. He’s a big reader now and I am writing this before dropping him at the Sunday afternoon art class he asked to sign up for.

So much of this is dependent on your family, your space, your child (my youngest just /took a door off its hinges for fun at 6 am this morning/, like a French glass door, because he found a screwdriver/ despite having unfettered access to an iPad and a TV+PS4 because he is completely like that...so when he was younger you had to watch him rather than screens. Today we managed to catch this before he smashed a glass door over himself. I dunno man... I almost wish Minecraft were of more interest, at least before 9 on Sundays.)

You will find your groove.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:45 AM on April 29, 2018

Our son is now three, we did no screentime until 2ish and since then he just gets one episode after nap on the weekend (and vacation/days without school). we also watch one short video every night to help with tooth brushing. if we're traveling we may also break out a tablet- it was handy on the one plane trip we've done with him.

My wife and I probably increased our phone usage after our son was born just because there's soooo much time spent just sitting around. we play with him and read to him but there are plenty of times he's playing on his own. I felt guilty until I remembered my parents reading the newspaper and magazines and realized the phone is serving a similar function.
posted by noloveforned at 11:02 AM on April 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

When my firstborn was little, we severely limited screen time, save for us buying into those Baby Einstein videos*, but we even limited those. An interesting side effect is that she was exposed to almost zero advertising, which I realized when she was three or four and I asked her what she wanted for Christmas, and she said toys and books. When I said which toys, she couldn't think of any. I guess it helped make her surprisingly non-materialistic compared to what I was like at that age. I think a lack of screens also helped her learn to really love books, which was nice.

* I am so embarrassed.
posted by 4ster at 11:52 AM on April 29, 2018

I just want to add to what I said above, which was mostly about avoiding using more screen time than perhaps you'd like to. Once your kid gets to a certain age, and I'm sure it's quite different for different children, watching interesting media with them can be awesome! To me, putting a kiddo in front of hypnotic YouTube videos for an hour while you take a shower or cook or whatever (and if you want to avoid doing this, it is likely possible, even without help, which is what I wanted to convey above) is utterly different from watching a neat video with your kid and talking about it together. My 4yo and I have enjoyed watching How It's Made, and although he's (like his mama) way too sensitive for even the tamest of Disney movies, we have enjoyed some Miyazaki films and clips of nature documentaries. I definitely don't think there's any reason to avoid engaging with interesting media with your child just because it happens to be shown on a screen. Obviously reading is very important, but there's room for cool videos/movies for sure. Honestly, now that my kiddo is 4 it's actually more important to me for us to find ways to engage meaningfully with TV/video/movie content than it is to carefully avoid it.
posted by Cygnet at 12:20 PM on April 29, 2018

It's super individual and also changes a lot as your kid grows and changes. Please don't forbid yourself screens when your kid is a newborn, you'll go crazy. Newborn babies can barely see a foot beyond their noses, they are super boring and yet you must be awake in their presence, and they tend to be awake at odd hours. I watched all 5 seasons of The Wire while breastfeeding.

Babies and toddlers you can blanket control screen time to your preferences and you'll naturally also be more engaged and present with them as they age and get more interesting and interactive (and exasperating). But in the 4-6 year old zone you'll start to notice how your kid as an individual interacts with screens and decide how you want to approach that. As you've noticed with the boys you babysit, it's really variable. My husband to this day goes instantly slack-jawed in the presence of moving images, whereas I only watch things I actually want to watch and can ignore or turn off anything else easily. We had screen time limits for my kid until this year when it became clear that he uses his screens like tools and creative toys, not passive entertainment (he's like me that way). He's downstairs right now writing a program in Scratch that's hooked up to a controller made of playdough. He's roped his dad into contributing so they're coding together. I'm not going to place a limit on that because that's creative as heck. But, if he was more just using his screens for watching cartoons or YouTube videos, there'd still be limits.

(Prepare yourself for a kid who grows up somewhat disconnected from kid pop culture. Which is fine! But it is a little odd. My kid also rarely sees advertisements, the only cartoons he watches are PBS, and he also has no idea what Disney is, what most superheroes are about, what toys are available out there, and that product tie-ins for the few cartoons he does watch exist. I keep waiting for him to figure this stuff out by kindergarten osmosis but so far no dice. If I want to finally realize my dream of taking my own child to Disneyland, it's going to be a concerted project of indoctrination or he's just not going to get it.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:27 PM on April 29, 2018

When I had a baby and worked, he was at a child care with no tv, then we came home, made dinner, bath or play time, books, bed. No tv. We didn't have cable and this was pre-web, so tv was not a given on weekends. Maybe a cartoon on Saturday morning, esp. if I had stuff to do. Kids who don't rely on tv/ youtube/ games develop self-entertainment skills that are useful. The most interesting people I know seldom or never watch tv. Side rant - kids have incredible quantities of toys that sit untouched while they use a tablet or whatever. Kids who are exposed to boredom will figure out how to play and have fun.
posted by theora55 at 3:46 PM on April 29, 2018

I have four kids, ages 10, 7, 3 and 3, and I've gone from very strict about screen time to "good God I'm exhausted just turn on PBS Kids" and halfway back again. Less screen time is, in my experience, better for everybody if you can manage it. When kids routinely get ignored for a bit while their grownups are busy, and don't have that time always filled with some external entertainment, they learn how to play independently.

One caveat, though - you asked specifically about your screen time, and starting from birth. I have always spent a lot of time watching tv or on my phone or whatever when I had newborns. You'll spend hours and hours and hours sitting on your couch breastfeeding the baby, burping the baby, snuggling the baby, and also you'll be kind of comatose from sleep deprivation, and yeah. It's nice to watch tv during that time.
posted by gerstle at 7:20 PM on April 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

We're a screen-friendly household. Some of this might be related to my own maybe-ADHD, as I always have music or television going in the background while I do creative work (otherwise I find focusing difficult) and was like this as a child, as well. But we also just love narratives, stories--in my marriage, watching TV together and discussing it is a primary feature; we fell in love going to movies, and my husband refers to going to the movies alone as "going to church."

My daughter got very little screentime for the first 15 months of her life (though you can bet I read on my tablet while nursing until she got too distractable for that) until we moved to a new house with a more open floorplan where the family TV was front and center. Around this age my daughter's super extroverted nature became apparent and we started to watch PBS kids during the day while at home, interspersed with other activities. My daughter has always been good about playing while the TV's going and her life is filled with imaginative narrative building. TV lets me spend more than 4 minutes without being interrupted. We go to kid friendly movies a lot; my daughter's seen maybe a dozen in the theater and can sit well through them and loves to talk about them with us. Like, we rented the Greatest Showman and I was showing her dad a negative vlog review and she insisted that I film her making a rebuttal. She also plays video games with her dad, and well. This are largely group activities, shared experiences, though, sure, I tune out during Top Wing sometimes.

I will say that the one piece of media I don't really like exposing my kid to is youtube, which we struggled with on our phones and tablets. It's the most commercial of commercial media, in my experience, and a lot of it is just . . . weird. Our solution to that was to get her a kid's amazon fire without youtube on it. Instead of youtube time, she plays horse games and is slowly teaching herself to read and write while playing it (and yes, we read and write with her too).

And we have a no screen policy during dinner. We listen to records instead and talk about our day. This counts for everyone, and I really value that time, though sometimes both my partner and kid complain about it. Meh. Definitely, if your kid is exposed to commercials, they'll ask for specific toys more. But in the scheme of things, it doesn't really bother me, personally.

So to me, it's figuring out something that's natural for your household culture. Forbidding TV time or movies (I know a seven year old who has yet to see a movie in the theater!) would make no sense for our family. I'm happy to share these things with her.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:54 AM on April 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think the concept that your kid will not get anything EDUCATIONAL out of screen-time before 18 months is a very good one. Keep an eye on developmental milestones and if you can cut back on it, awesome, but it doesn't make or break parenting.

The advice I'd give:
- Spend energy finding good content and/or encouraging quality shows
- Regarding quality: YouTube Kids isn't a particular good filter (it's great for Elmo clips but you get some really questionable stuff if you just let your kid free-range)
- Don't beat yourself up if you need to use some screentime to cope as a parent or so your kid can make it through grandpa's 80th, or just for a fun movie night -- just balance it out elsewhere
- Regarding balance: Read books to your kids every night. Explain stuff to babies.
posted by typecloud at 12:35 PM on April 30, 2018

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