Let’s Put an End to Screen-Time Shaming

If you're silently (or otherwise) judging parents for their kids' screen time — or you've been judged — read on.

Melissa Morgenlander, Ph.D.
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Melissa Morgenlander, Ph.D., Toca Magazine Guest Writer
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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 away his evening screen time. That’s her usual punishment, she informed me — 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.

Other than [some] basic ground rules, I pretty much let my children decide when or when not to have their iPad or TV on.

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.

For my son, his iPad is a ritualistic necessity.

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.

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 and technology and media called The iQ Journals. You can learn more about Melissa from her website, or follow her on twitter @covertcoviewer.

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