The Baby and the Bathwater: A Nuanced Message About Screen Time

| December 11, 2013 | 4 Comments

The debate about ‘screen time’ and children continues to be a hot topic in the field of early childhood education. Among the most difficult questions I have to answer are the ones about app recommendations for children under three. It seems like an innocent question, but it can also feel like I’ve entered a mine-field full of assumptions. Recently, a reporter who covers Apple for the San Jose Mercury News, Patrick May, interviewed me for an article about the best apps for (very) young children. He was looking for one app for each age 1-5.

I was initially flummoxed … I had just returned from the exceptional California Library Association (CLA) Early Learning with Families (ELF) 2.0 conference where I was on the faculty with heavy hitters like Joshua Sparrow, from the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. The message from people who had spent their lives considering the needs of young children and their caregivers was clear in my mind at the time and I knew the answer was not to recommend an app for infants … the answer was to recommend a philosophy.

At this point it is useless to say, “no media before age 2″ or “only 2 hours of screen time for kids aged 2-8″ … this is like using time limits to guide a dietary recommendation. What use would it be to trumpet a message to the public that recommends eating for 22 minutes at each meal and then stopping, as a way to get the most balanced nutrition? It sounds insane, but really … this how we are approaching screen time – as if it can be cut up in this way.

The reality is that we are obsessed with the ‘time’ aspect of our screen use simply because that is the most salient evidence of our over-use and reliance on digital media. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon or PhD to figure out that we should probably be spending more time on challenging or restorative activities. At the very least we realize people of all ages need more variety in the way they spend each 24 hours … all humans need movement, social engagement, sleep, nutrition and ideally to grow intellectually rather than be mindlessly entertained.

But the nuance of this message is vital … otherwise we risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater. When we toss all screen-time into the same bucket of ‘bad’ and all other ‘non-screen’ time as good we truly miss the point. It isn’t the screen or ‘content delivery device’ as I like to call it … it is the actual CONTENT & CONTEXT in which the content is consumed, shared and digested that really matters most.

But this is a more thoughtful and detail-oriented analysis … it isn’t easy, nor can quick & dirty calculations be made on the fly using it as a guide.

These are not only nuanced recommendations, but they need to be individualized, to every child and family situation. Otherwise we risk endorsing products like the recently recalled Newborn-to-Toddler Apptivity™ Seat for iPad® device by Fisher-Price. A post from LittleeLit, “iPads for Babies: @CommercialFree Campaign Against Fisher Price,” did a wonderful job elucidating these points.

What we lack on a deep level in our 21st century digital world is balance. It isn’t that digital media is evil, but that it is infinitely more attractive to us (and our young people) than other more important activities like being industrious (work), movement (exercise), personal growth (socializing), moral development (civic involvement), and many other pursuits (including eating & sleeping). When human beings are willing to wear diapers while drinking energy drinks that tax their adrenal glands in order to keep playing a popular role-playing game, we have encountered an environment that takes advantage of our deepest human vulnerabilities. New media and technology can be harnessed for the growth of human capacity, but it can also thwart and stunt that growth by honing in on our most likely sources of addiction.

Harry Harlow’s 1960’s Research on Primates and Infant Neglect

Don’t get me wrong … I do not think the Fisher Price ‘iPad bouncy chair’ is the most evil invention of our time, but it is a REALLY BAD IDEA. It gives the distinct impression that it is acceptable or even desirable to set your infant up with a screen to entertain them. This does not mean that a parent who lets their infant watch a screen (TV, DVD, iPad video) that is set up near their bouncy chair once-in-a-while should feel damned or like the worst parent ever. But we do need to be aware of the impact of neglect on infants … primate studies make the results very clear.

Life is messy & complicated … sometimes I propped a bottle up for my infant or left him in his automatic swing while I took a shower … I often put on “Dinosaur Train” or “WordWorld” when he was a toddler – he was definitely under two. I also had a complicated post-partum experience that was not ideal. While I can’t help but wonder if my child’s speech-delay was exacerbated by my depression and reliance on screens to keep us both happy in those early years, I also know that there is no evidence whatsoever that I wasn’t the very best caregiver my child could have had. Parents are the cornerstone of a child’s experience, their primary and first teachers. When we support the parents God (or the universe) gave the children we encounter every day in our work with the public, we support our communities at the very best level.

In fact, when we build parents’ confidence and improve their skills, knowledge and overall capacity as thoughtful caregivers, we can impact the lives of young children (and by extension, our whole society). This action serves as a counter-weight to products like the Fisher-Price iPad Bouncy Chair. There wouldn’t be a ripe market for a product like this unless parents were desperate for help. The experience for western parents raising children from birth to age five is incredibly isolating, exhausting, exasperating and often the most difficult (yet important) transition of their adult lives. Help us become the best parents we can be by believing in us and our potential to positively influence the next generation. This help must sometimes be spoon-fed to parents and caregivers … definitely not force-fed, but I predict that this work (over the next few decades) for professionals that serve families and children will be among the most satisfying in generations. At the very least, it has the potential impact society for decades to come.

Category: iPads in Education, Libraries and the Digital Shift

About the Author ()

Carisa Kluver is the the editor of Digital-Storytime.com, an iPad children's book review site. She has a BA in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and an MSW from the University of Washington. Before starting this project, she was a school counselor, health educator and researcher in child & maternal health.

Comments (4)

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  1. Josh Golin says:

    Clarisa – I enjoyed your really thoughtful post. You are clearly attuned to the challenges parents face in the real world and care deeply about child. But I have a couple of questions.

    You don’t want to talk about “screen time.” You want to talk about “balance.” I’m having a little difficulty understanding what the difference is between the two concepts. How can one achieve balance — and do all the things that you say humans need to do — if they’re not monitoring/limiting screen time? You seem to be saying that a screen time approach ignores content but that’s not what I’m seeing from professionals and advocates who talk about screen time (like the AAP and CCFC). I’ve never heard anyone say “digital media is evil.” It seems to me like you’re responding to a straw man in order to get to your screen time/balance distinction. So again, I’m curious – how does one achieve balance is there’s no limit on screen time, given that there are only so many waking hours in the day?

    I also wonder about this statement “There wouldn’t be a ripe market for a product like this (iPad)unless parents were desperate for help.
    Do you really believe marketing doesn’t create markets? That the huge push by the “ed tech” industry to promote apps and devices to parents and educators and children doesn’t affect parents? That certainly doesn’t ring true with the history of “baby media” — think of how Baby Einstein made up claims about brain development to build its brand — or our current moment. Actually, it doesn’t ring true with the history of advertising (or capitalism.) I’m curious why you believe marketers are simply responding to need rather than creating one.

    Sorry for the long comment – it’s a provocative post!

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful and provocative comments, Josh. I have to agree with you about a need to include screen-limits as part of an approach to finding ‘balance’, but I still think the emphasis on time over content is too common and not especially useful. If pushing for screen-time limits was effective, the hours in front of screens would be going down, not up. I just think it’s a terrible way to approach this societal issue.

      You ask, “Do you really believe marketing doesn’t create markets? That the huge push by the “ed tech” industry to promote apps and devices to parents and educators and children doesn’t affect parents?” Yes, I really believe the marketing for apps by ed tech is a *very* small part of the current cultural fascination with apps and educational software.

      3.5 years after the iPad was released, this iPad bouncy chair seems like part of the unfortunate landscape growing up around what is otherwise a very promising industry for education. But no, I don’t think marketing is driving this issue at all (although I do appreciate attention given to any ill-conceived product like this).

      I think this cat is so far out of the bag that we have to deal with it even if we take every bad product off the market. Yes, marketers sometimes respond to a need rather than create one … but it isn’t simple. It’s complex, and that’s my point. The cultural need is exploited but not invented, which is why I am interested most in changing the focus of our conversation away from screen time to focus on the actual content in a thoughtful way.

      I do think CCFC is risking throwing out the baby with the bathwater with this issue … the product in question is awful and easy to attack, but the reality behind it is much more nuanced and difficult to address. Parents are in fact using ‘devices’ in this way, regardless of the products available. We need to concentrate our resources on this fact, but we all can add to this conversation. The work of a group like CCFC is helpful by at least brining the topic into the public sphere. For that, I am very grateful!

      Carisa

    • Genesis says:

      I want to respond to this particular paragraph of Josh’s reply:

      “You don’t want to talk about “screen time.” You want to talk about “balance.” I’m having a little difficulty understanding what the difference is between the two concepts. How can one achieve balance — and do all the things that you say humans need to do — if they’re not monitoring/limiting screen time? You seem to be saying that a screen time approach ignores content but that’s not what I’m seeing from professionals and advocates who talk about screen time (like the AAP and CCFC). I’ve never heard anyone say “digital media is evil.” It seems to me like you’re responding to a straw man in order to get to your screen time/balance distinction. So again, I’m curious – how does one achieve balance is there’s no limit on screen time, given that there are only so many waking hours in the day?”

      As a librarian and a mom of two pre-school aged children, I’ve heard plenty of people say “digital media is evil” or some very close equivalent. So no, I don’t think Carissa is creating a straw man to make a point. There are too very entrenched extremes around this issue: those who are thoughtlessly exposing children to digital media of all kinds, using those media as babysitters rather than engagement tools, etc. and those who are reacting against media use with the extreme response of “no screens, ever.”

      As a mom, I find myself in the muddled middle. I don’t think screen technology is inherently good or evil. I know enough not to let my children spend their whole day looking at screens, but we tend to focus on quality of time spent rather than quantity, and I believe that’s what Carissa is talking about when she refers to a time-based management of screen engagement.

      I have found digital media to be very useful, and I love using our tablets and my iPhone with my boys. I find they don’t really distinguish much between printed and electronic books (they love both), and they’ve learned a great deal from some of the digital games that we have available. And while I try to focus on joint engagement and interact with them around the device and content, I’ve also used it as something to occupy them while I do some laundry or get dinner ready.

      To me, balance isn’t something I keep by using a timer. I monitor my kids’ behavior and interests more than minutes spent on a specific activity. We make sure we get some time outside every day, weather permitting. We make sure that we get some exposure to other people, to other types of play, etc. If I see negative behavior around the iPad (e.g. refusal to put it down when it’s time for a meal or other activity), then the iPad goes away for awhile. And that’s true of other toys as well. My oldest son shows more and more preference for inside games and toys (even as he’s naturally moving away from the iPad for the time being). He likes cars and art and building toys and so on. But we know it’s important for him to get exercise and fresh air, so we make sure that we play outside, too, and work to engage him so that he’s having a good time and isn’t just counting down the minutes until he can go back inside. To me, that’s balance – we’re not always perfect, but try to keep the pendulum swinging back towards moderation.

      What works for us may not work for all families. But something gets lost in the discussion when you reduce it to talk about time. There’s a world of difference between spending an hour with your child looking at ebooks or art apps on the tablet or setting them loose for 15 minutes with Talking Tom. Yes, time is a factor. But it’s not the only factor.

  2. Katrina Bergen says:

    Hits the nail on the head!

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