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New Mom Dispatch: Face Time

Learning the parenthood ropes one month at a time


The other day, my mom laughed when I confessed to having let 19-month-old Fiona watch Sesame Street. When I was little, she said, parents didn’t think twice about letting kids watch a little TV while they made dinner. It’s just how you got things done. It’s still how you get things done. But now, that productivity often comes with a tug of guilt.  

Thanks to today’s digital glut, parents are justifiably worried about the effect of so many screens on developing brains and bodies. As a result, in my mind even the unimpeachable Sesame Street gets swept into an all-encompassing area of concern.

It’s not that I’m worried about the show itself — on the contrary, I love revisiting it and I’m thrilled that something will captivate Fiona for 10 precious minutes. And we’ve been saved dozens of times by the Peekaboo Barn app and YouTube videos of old Raffi concerts while sitting in traffic. As any parent knows, screens can make life a lot easier. And in moderation, they just don’t seem harmful.

But I still feel conflicted. Why? For one, the long-term effects of this new screen ubiquity aren’t known. Secondly, our own screen addictions can feel so out of control. Who doesn’t resent that twitchy feeling of always needing to check their phone; of the way these devices have chipped away at our attention spans, conversations and sleep. If phones could remold our adult brains and the way we experience the world in just a decade, what will the impact be on my daughter, who for now is mesmerized by bird feeders and new crocuses? I got such pleasure from reading as a kid, and wonder if she’ll be able to also amid so many distractions.

So there’s this hand-wringing and then there’s real life. I know a high-energy 2-year-old who will only eat a meal if he’s half-distracted by Daniel Tiger. Do his parents feel torn about this? Of course. Do they want him to eat? Of course. I know another mom who’s frustrated by the fact that her 6-year-old won’t sit through a whole show or movie and blames herself for never having let her daughter watch TV as a toddler. 

Up until now, I only knew of a vague rule that said no screens before age 2 — and barely anyone who adheres to this. But it turns out that experts are evolving with the times.  

Last October, the American Academy of Pediatrics, “recognizing the ubiquitous role of media in children’s lives,” released new recommendations and resources to help families maintain a healthy “media diet.” As with any successful diet, the guidelines are more about moderation and quality ingredients (in this case, content) than one-size-fits-all rules. For example, for babies under 18 months, video-chatting with relatives is OK. For kids Fiona’s age, the AAP states that “Some media can have educational value for children starting at around 18 months of age, but it's critically important that this be high-quality programming, such as the content offered by Sesame Workshop and PBS.” 

Regarding the 2-and-under set, Common Sense Media says: “Some parents worry that exposing their kids to any TV or screen time could be damaging. Take it from us: A little bit of media isn't gonna hurt. It's heavy exposure to screen media — for example, constant background TV, devices in the bedroom, and using media as a babysitter that can have a negative impact on babies' and toddlers' cognitive, physical, and emotional development." What a relief. 

Another part of the new AAP guidelines is the Family Media Use Plan tool on HealthyChildren.org, an interactive feature that lets families create screen-time plans to print out and stick on the fridge, heading off daily skirmishes over the topic. We’re not there yet, but I can see the appeal. 

In this brave new world, who knows? A recent New York Times article outlined a new scientific theory that all the social media usage among teenagers may be what's cutting down on that generation’s drug and alcohol usage. Snapchat over shots? I’ll take it.

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