Toddlers and Technology

Before my son was born, I fell in with the no screens before two crowd.

But technology crept slowly into our life.

When family watched sports, or his cousins watched movies…

Around his first birthday, I started playing videos so that I could cut his nails.

And he loved it.  He lit up and danced to the music.

How could something that brought him so much joy be bad?

Shifting Expectations

Everyone knows TV rots your brain.  …right?

I’ve shed so many unquestioned assumptions since I became a mother.

Being a parent requires a tremendous amount of flexibility and a willingness to take in new information.

And while I may have pictured myself as the sort of mother who set up lots of opportunities for art and sensory play… it’s just not worth it. Not right now, at this age, in our little carpeted condo.

Rainy days, Rye spends more time watching Netflix than he does outside. He’s seen BBC’s Hidden Kingdom at least thirty times. He can name every animal, from the elephant to the rhinoceros beetle.

I see all the fear mongering that happens around screens, and it seems so silly to me. Like any other aspect of parenting, connection is key. Watching videos WITH our kids, talking about them, is a wonderful way to expand their world.

‘Screentime’ Fears

There’s a popular trend in the natural parenting community of no screens before age two, or even no screens at all.  While there’s nothing wrong with that — I have so much respect for parents who never fall back on screens — I don’t agree with the idea that screens are inherently harmful.

When I was a new mother, I shared the common prejudice against technology for kids.  We all want what’s best for our kids, and a new parent’s concept of that can be pretty simplistic.

The more I read unschoolers‘ perspectives on screens, the more I began to question my assumptions about screen time.

What does it look like when unschooled children have unlimited screen time?

Won’t they be glued to a screen?

Maybe.  For a little while.

When we first started showing Rye videos, around his first birthday, he was fascinated.  We mainly used it as a tool to allow for easy nail clipping.

Well, he’s not glued anymore, and his nails are a mess.

These days, it’s just a part of his flow.  He’ll ask for a certain show, watch for a while, drift off to play with trains or blocks, come back when he sees an animal that interests him.

Sometimes he is focused on the screen, and that’s okay!  He’s engaged, he’s learning.

Aren’t screens addicting?

I don’t think so.

I bought into that idea for a while, because I spent too much time as a kid in front of the TV or the computer.  But my retreat into screens — and I spent just as much time with my nose in a book — was symptomatic of a larger problem.

I think that’s the case with most people.  Preexisting depression or anxiety can lead to addictive behavior.

If you know someone who seems to be addicted to video gaming, your attempt to help should probably not focus on taking the video screen away. It should focus, instead, on trying to understand, and help that person understand, what is missing or wrong in other parts of his or her life and how that problem might be solved.

Dr. Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn

Screens aren’t inherently addictive, but if a child (or adult) is lacking connection and community, they may try to plug that hole with technology.

But doesn’t screen time cause speech delays?

Nope!

It’s true, screen time in young children correlates with speech delays.  But as my grandfather was so fond of saying, correlation does not equal causation.

If you’re watching videos alongside your toddler, talking about what you see, it’s no worse for their development than reading a book.

My son’s vocabulary exploded when we started watching TV.

“Mouse running! Eat the bug! Eat the lizard mouse! Corre, mouse, corre! Mouse hiding! Mama mouse baby mouse chichi milk!”

From morning cuddles to bedtime chatter, he loves to talk about what he’s been watching.

I don’t want to use screens as a babysitter.

Cool.  More power to you.

But if you’re struggling, if you’re stuck inside, alone with your kids all week long… give yourself a break.

We were never meant to do this alone.

My son should be out chasing his cousins, playing with his uncles, cuddling with his grandmothers.  And I facilitate those things as much as I can.

But the reality is that we’re stuck in our little box most of the time, just me and him.

So yeah, I’d rather put on Puffin Rock than have him screaming for my attention while I try to cook dinner.

The True Danger of Screen Time

The primary danger of technology is that it increases the potential for disconnection.  If a child is already feeling lonely and isolated, and her parents respond to her passions with ridicule, it makes her more likely to retreat.

Adults are at least as prone to misuse of screens as children.  When we’re spending too much time on separate screens, the fault is mine entirely.  He watches his show, so I pick up my phone… and before I know it, hours have passed.

It’s my responsibility to make sure I’m fully available to my son and offer plenty of opportunities for play and connection.

A Positive Mentality

So how can we ensure that technology is a positive addition to our lives?

As with anything, it’s better to focus on the positive over the negative.  Look at what your family needs more of (exercise, quality time, nature) instead of focusing on what you want to do less (such as TV or video games).

Instead of imposing arbitrary limits, partner with your children to meet everyone’s needs.

Provide plenty of options — art materials, books and games, lots of opportunities to run free outside — and don’t stress when they develop an interest in something that happens to be on a screen.  Embrace it.  Join in the fun!

Monitor what they’re watching.  You don’t have to police their screen usage or set arbitrary limits, but it’s important to watch alongside them sometimes.

With very young children, it’s as easy as providing them with options you feel comfortable with.  We started with songs on YouTube and moved on to Netflix.  Our favorites are Hidden Kingdom, Puffin Rock, and Spirit Riding Free.

With older children, watch with them as often as you can.  Help them learn to navigate the internet safely, and have an ongoing conversation about all aspects of technology.

You want them to feel safe coming to you if they see something scary or confusing.  Criticizing or otherwise shaming their choice of entertainment will only serve to shut down this important conversation.

So go ahead.  Let your kids watch their favorite show while you put the baby to sleep.  Cuddle up together and watch  movie.

And enjoy!

2 thoughts on “Toddlers and Technology

  1. That was a very REAL account, thank you for your candor. Being involved makes all the difference in screen time. I remember while my daughter was sick, nothing would soothe her but Beauty and the Beast, and I now know the movie by heart!

    1. Thank you! We didn’t start going heavy on screens until bubs was sick with whooping cough, and then I was SO grateful to have easy entertainment while we cuddled up on the couch for weeks.

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