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, 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.