An Argument For Ending Screen-Time Shaming

Written by

Melissa Morgenlander, Ph.D. via Toca Magazine

2:30 pm
09/20/17

Photo Courtesy of Toca Magazine

Recently, another mom I know was telling me about how her son had done something he was not supposed to do. As a consequence, she took a—taking away his screen time. Her children get half an hour of screen time in the mornings and half an hour every night.

“Evening screen time?” I thought to myself. “An hour a day?” It seemed like this woman and I were living in different universes. My children have no such designated periods for digital playing and viewing. In my home, screen time is all the time.

As I write this, I can already feel you judging me. Screen-time shaming is not always spoken out loud, but I often feel silent disapproval from other parents when I disclose the amount of screen time I give my children. I am proposing that we put an end to screen-shaming. Let’s consider each situation before we judge.

In Lisa Guernsey’s book, Screen Time: How Electronic Media—From Baby Videos to Educational Software—Affects Your Young Child, she states that we need to consider the three C’s when thinking about screen time for kids: content, context, and the individual child. While most media coverage concerns itself with content (educational television and apps), and recent conversation has turned toward context (namely, the importance of co-viewing, or joint media engagement), less is said about individual differences of children. That last C is just as important as the first two—let’s not forget about the child.

In reality, I do limit my children with their screens—somewhat. I have some basic rules that keep things in check: No digital devices or TVs in bedrooms; iPads get charged in the living room every night; no screens during homework (unless it is required). Other than these basic ground rules, I pretty much let my children decide when or when not to have their iPad or TV on. Screens are not going away in this world, and I want to give my children practice at learning how to regulate it on their own now, because they’ll have to do it eventually.

My “excuse” for our approach to screen time: My excuse (or the excuse I used to give, but have stopped because I don’t want to feel screen-time shame anymore) is that I have a child with autism. Truly, his autism is the primary reason why we purchased an iPad in the first place, years ago. We were going to use it with a voice-generating app that could help him to communicate. Once my son began speaking on his own, however, we ditched the idea of using it exclusively for communicating and it became more of a toy. At this point, he really does need it, but not for the reason we first intended.

And of course, once we had an iPad for my son, my daughter immediately started fighting for it. (If you are a parent of more than one child, I sense your knowing smile.) So, we bought a second iPad, just for her. My 10-year-old twins are very different from each other. While my son has autism and ADHD, my daughter has no diagnosis at all. While they both love YouTube, my daughter will also play a variety of games, take selfies, and/or make stop-motion animations. However, she is happy to step away from the screen more easily to practice her drawing skills or write a story. She doesn’t need the screen the way her brother does.

For my son, his iPad is a ritualistic necessity. He grabs it the second he wakes up, and the second he comes home from school. He has interests that go in very different directions than his sister. He will use Google Maps “street view” to tour parts of our neighborhood, looking at familiar street signs and looking inside stores, as Google sometimes allows. He uses YouTube to find videos on a wide variety of things: corporate logos, TV commercials, children’s rhyming songs, TV news shows, Toy Story 2, and videos about elevators. He likes to listen to lullabies I played for him as a baby, or look at pictures from our shared photo stream.

Many parents have loose screen-time policies: I have been interviewing a lot of parents who have children with autism spectrum disorders for a book that I’m writing. I’m learning that I’m not the only one with a loose screen-time policy. It turns out, most parents who have a child on the spectrum take a similar view as I do, and have very few screen-time limits for their children. Their reasons vary: Some parents of autistic children say that their child’s ability to stay calm and focused with an iPad is amazing. Some parents say that their children learn about things in the real world by interacting with YouTube. Others say that particular games have been really beneficial to desensitizing them to highly sensory activities in the real world, such as Toca Boca’s Hair Salon apps.

All children are different, but some children genuinely do need more time with a digital device. Those with autism might function better with a little more screen time than their neuro-typical peers.

So, the next time you see a child in a public place who is glued to a tablet or a smartphone, don’t be so quick to assume screen time is such a horrible thing. Take a moment to increase your understanding of individual differences —this is what real inclusion is all about.

This article originally appeared in Toca Magazine.

Melissa Morgenlander, Ph.D., is a children’s media curriculum designer and researcher based in Brooklyn, NY. She has a blog about her experiences with autism, technology, and media called The iQ Journals. You can learn more about Melissa from her website, or follow her @covertcoviewer.

For more on this topic, check out the following Mother articles: 10 Moms Sound Off On Their Screen Time Rules And Realities, 5 Teacher-Approved Apps For Kindergarteners, and 5 Educational Toddler Sites Worth Checking Out.

Leave a Comment

12 comments

Anne

My daughter has a genetic disorder that makes feeding an extreme challenge. At 3.5 we are still spoon feeding her puree. The only way we can get her to settle down and cooperate with feeding is to put on a video. She loves children’s songs, Barney, Peppa Pig (which has a surprisingly feminist message most of the time) and similar shows. I often feel guilty about her getting video every time she eats, but if she doesn’t feeding is a total nightmare. So, thank you for this article. I wish we didn’t have to resort to this, but it’s important for me to remember that for her specifically it is really necessary right now.

Alia

My oldest son has had an iPad since he was 2 years old. I’ve never limited his access, rather I make responsible choices about what apps I download for him. He loves abcmouse, all the Toca Boca games, endless alphabet, endless numbers, actually all the endless apps are amazing. He has some math games and a lot of games that challenge his critical thinking skills. He just started pre-kindergarten and his teacher pulled me aside the other day and said she couldn’t believe how smart he was. I really think it’s time for screen time shaming to stop. Screen time means something totally different now than it did 10 years ago. I’m glad you realized you didn’t need to make excuses for it anymore. Thanks for posting this!!

sarah

I say this with a child that has no limits in learning, etc. and is well advanced. I understand certain circumstances are for the better with use of technology, but I really think most parents use it as a crutch, and yes.. I judge them. If you are using it with correct context and content, as you suggested, I think it can be a great tool, at times. Also, I’m 30.. so I’ve grown up with and without technology. I have an iPhone, computer, tv.. that’s about it.

We’ve always been very strict with screen time. We have an 8yo and a 7 week old (who will get the same technological treatment, if you wish). Our daughter did not watch television of any kind until roughly age 3. We did not buy electronic toys (and if we were gifted one.. we either got rid of it, or never put batteries in it). She gets no screen time whatsoever throughout the week (Sunday night to Friday night), and this was true before she even started school as well. On weekends, she has limited access to Netflix (we don’t have cable) and the Nintendo DS (ie, if it becomes a little excessive, we make the executive decision to turn it all off). We do not have screens in bedrooms, and she is allowed on computer for educational purposes only (coding websites, etc) and only on weekends. She was never allowed to play with our phones and has never had any device such as a LeapPad, etc. that we blindly handed to her at the doctor’s office (trust me.. I see it a lot as a nurse). The only “device” she has ever had is recently her Nintendo DS, and she worked for it and saved half the money to purchase.
Upside.. she has no idea what half the shit in the store is because she doesn’t have access to the commercials marketed towards them (although this is changing.. because she’s in elementary school and exposed to other children who are). Also, there is a HUGE difference in her attitude revolving around screen time, and frankly, it pisses me off.
I do have to say that I’m a little upset that iPads are making their ways into schools (my 8yo has one in her desk!!). Paper, pencil.. old school.. it works. I get that they’re supposed to be “supplemental”, but for my child, it is completely unnecessary and I’d really rather she not. Cest la vie.

    Ray

    I agree, I think this article is bogus, frankly. Autistic kids do not “need” screen time, geez, is this a joke? My husband works with kids with diverse special needs and I think this whole concept would frankly be quite offensive. Not to mention a close friend has a son with Autism and she feels to complete opposite, she wishes she could keep him more away from screens. I know all kids have individual needs, but screens are not a need, folks. For anyone.

      DeeDee

      Couldn’t agree more Ray. This article makes me so, so sad.

      Daria

      I could not disagree more, I think this article is bold and refreshing and opens a respectful dialogue on how technology discursively implicates children’s identity. The article isn’t claiming children who are placed on the spectrum of special needs actually “need” screentime or devices. She was simply commenting on her child’s rituals that he depends on for his wellness, including an attachment to his iPad. Everyone has rituals that we depend on for our wellness, and we also all have rituals or habits that do not serve us or others, like judging each other’s perspectives while hiding behind a screen. Your husband may work with special needs children, but that doesn’t make his perspectives the de facto truth about what children need, nor does his life work give you a platform to justify calling someone else’s commentary on how they parent bogus. Running the same vein, your friend may have a special needs child, but her opinions and experiences are not universal for special needs children. All children, just like all people, are different and have a spectrum of abilities and needs, regardless if they have a diagnosis tied to their identity or not. There is no one size fits all “right” way to approach parenting, especially when parents are faced with challenges like social and auditory struggles in their children. I think someone arguing that they know best and the one “right” way to take on the immeasurably difficult and constantly problematic identity role of parent, is significantly more harmful than someone sharing their perspectives on their specific and unique experiences as a parent and opening a dialogue for others to share too.

        Carla

        I find it so sad that people would bother to comment negatively and judge this mother. My child has no diagnosis, yet, but I can tell you dear readers and commenters who have healthy and typical children, please stop judging others. Until you experience a child with neurodivergence such as autism or ADHD, you truly cannot understand how difficult it can be to manage their energy levels and frustration with life. It makes me so sad to see other people judging parents of children with special needs. Do you have any concept of how your harsh criticism of a situation you know nothing about may make special needs parents feel? Do you realise that perhaps we already have so much guilt about how this has happened in the first place, that guilting us about a coping strategy that makes our child HAPPY is cruel and unwarranted? Please consider other people’s feelings before judging. Also, to the commenter who’s husband WORKS with special needs children, I can suggest you google what happens to children with autism or sensory processing disorder when they go home to their parents. There are scientific studies on this topic, children release all of their emotions in the safety of their home and this is where screen time can be useful to ease them into another environment.

        To the writer, thank you. I too have a loose screen time policy, we don’t use it as a crutch as an unhelpful commenter said, we use it the way my child who is two years old and has several medical and emotional issues, needs. It is directed by him and he often watches the things he likes and then moves onto play. We use it for transitions, waiting for hours sometimes at specialists. Hugs to you and I hear you.

        Carla

        Thank you Daria for perfecting summing up what I would say too. I found these above comments quite hurtful

        Ray

        Daria~ I never said I knew the one “right” way, I said “I” thought this article was “bogus” and that’s my opinion…which I am entitled to.
        So.

        But totally thank you for letting me know how wrong I was! I wouldn’t have known my opinion was wrong without your comment!

      alexandra

      i (like you, i’m sure) grew up in a pre-iPad, pre-smart phone era with an autistic younger brother. we did not have internet until he was an older child. i witnessed my brother blossom as a person once he discovered the world through the computer screen. he has extreme anxiety and does not enjoy face to face interactions with people (before you ask, he has had intensive help through therapists, teachers and more since early childhood -it’s just how he functions). before he had access to the internet, he had no social life and was much more withdrawn and depressed. however, he now has rich online community of close friends (many whom i assume have similar feelings about “real world” social interactions). so yes, my brother “needs” screen time.

    L

    You seem like you’re one of those moms who thinks she is so much better than others. Looking for a medal here?
    I really like the idea of teaching your kids to regulate the use of technology on their own, without enforcing strict rules, and couldn’t agree more that all children and family dynamics are different.
    We let our kids watch some TV, play video games or use their tablets but we also make sure they have all the outdoor time they need + lots of unstructured play and board / card game family time. It’s all about balance, but yeah, some days they watch a little more TV, and some other days they are playing outside all day.
    People need to chill and stop being so judgmental!

M

Autism experts seem to disagree.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201612/autism-and-screen-time-special-brains-special-risks

http://theautismblog.seattlechildrens.org/autism-and-screen-time/

(many more links available).

What about recent studies that state austism occurs because of a genetic factor that is exacerbated by environmental factors, namely screen-time from a young age?

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