In three months, my son turns 2. That’s going to bring some fun new parenting challenges. Potty training. Those “terrible twos.”

And tough decisions about how much time he’s going to sit and stare at screens.

Under the age of 2, young kids should have no screen time in front of TVs, computers, tablets or other media devices, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. After 2, they should get no more than two hours of screen time a day.

The reason: Toddlers learn more from real-life interaction and language, and staring at screens can rule those things out without bringing much of value to their spongy, impressionable little minds.

(Flickr photo by Visa Kopu, CC)
(Flickr photo by Visa Kopu, CC)

A quarter of parents of kids ages 2-5 allow more than three hours of screen time per day, according to one recent study — well above the recommended limit.

Many ignore the APA’s under-2 screen time ban, too — especially with tactile screens like tablets and phones, which make possible the kinds of interactive apps and games some notable docs, like Seattle’s own Dmitri Christakis, believe can be good even for our littlest ones.

I’m all for playing with interactive screens, as long as what we’re actually doing is interactive. I show my son photos and videos of our family and friends on my phone almost daily, asking him to point, name and swipe. I’ve even created little games where I ask him what he wants to see, then ask Siri to do a Google image search of things like ducks, oranges and giraffes. He loves that.

But I’ll admit it: I’m scared to let my son just sit and watch passive TV when he turns 2. Any of it. For a while.

Let me tell you about one of the deepest sinkholes of guilt I’ve crawled into since I’ve become a mom.

I watch our son Mondays and Wednesdays and work Tuesdays and Thursdays. But every now and then there’s something — an email, an interview, deep edits to a column — that just has to be taken care of at an inflexible time my son won’t give me on one of these watch-the-baby days.

That’s when I turn on the Apple TV, go to Netflix Kids, pick an episode of Barney or Daniel Tiger or one of those weird baby colors and shapes shows and get to work.

It’s happened only a handful of times. Five or six at the most.

But every time, he enters The Trance.

It’s not really a trance. It’s the blank, idle face any of us make when we give ourselves over to some show or other.

On adults, it’s part of life. But on him, it looks wrong. He’s a toddler. He moves and plays and blabs and cries. TV takes my little ball of energy and sedates him, right in front of my guilty, desperate eyes.

All parents are different and I can only imagine the range of reactions to this. Everything from, I let my kids watch TV from the bassinet what the HELL are you implying? to Well, that’s what you get for dumping your kid on some brain-dead machine before his time.

Funny things happen to your brain when you become a parent. You get weirdly risk averse and paranoid, in any of a number of directions. Sometimes it’s smart. Other times, it’s silly.

My mom hears my concerns and laughs. She put me in front of the TV for hours while I was in diapers. I’m fine. Mostly. What am I freaking out about?

And it’s not like my son suffers in front of the tube. He yells “Barney!” when that impossible creature comes on screen and points. Neurons, clearly, are firing.

But what it comes down to for me is this: Much as I’d love (love!) a new way to get reliable me-time on mom days, and I’d hate to end up over-restricting anything that’s essentially harmless, I don’t need a group of doctors to tell me screens are weird for little kids. Watching my son is enough.

And I’m just not sure any regular time in front of non-interactive screens — no matter how kid friendly the content — should be among his birthday gifts this year.

This is where I shut up and turn it over to you, especially if you’re parents:

Is a passive screen just another toy after the age of 2, or an electronic distraction that’s best avoided — or heavily restricted — until your kids are a little older?

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  • Todd Bishop

    Great perspective. Everything in moderation? For what it’s worth, my 3 yo daughter is currently a fan of the app Thinking Time, which we’ve written about on the site in the past …

    • Monica Guzman

      Yup – apps like sound like something our son could try. Not as easy as plopping him in front of the big screen with some Netflix Kids show — finding and getting apps like this, I mean — but a lot less sedating, it seems. About how many of these kinds of apps does your daughter use? And about how long does she spend using them? Does she moderate herself, or do you end up having to pull her away?

      • Kevin McCarthy

        Get him a Kindle Fire, launch Kindle FreeTime, set him up a profile with goals and limits that you can decide, tech him how to use it, problem solved.

        My 5 year old thinks the Kindle is the most amazing thing….and really, it is. Playing educational apps is FAR BETTER than TV.

        • Monica Guzman

          It is nice that we have this whole category of immersive yet interactive and extremely portable things called educational kids apps on tablets. :)

  • Kimm

    To the extent we were able to fully enforce it later, we had some success with printing out “computer bucks” (seem to recall the exchange rate was different for TV – watching something together was ‘free’). A certain amount was allotted each week like allowance and more could be earned by completing more chores than what we’re assigned as normal routine.

    All that aside, passive TV still existed from time to time in our house but always at the bottom of the list and we tried to make it shared and on purpose as much as possible. Like Todd, I like the everything in moderation (including moderation!) approach.

    • Monica Guzman

      I like the idea of making TV a shared experience when possible. I know it’s a treat for many families, but while kids are super young (toddler age) it seems they’re less likely to see it as the everybody’s-watching-this-show! treat that teens and pre-teens see. In other words: the littlest kids still find plenty of fascination in the physical world, and maybe it’s good to take advantage of that!

  • Beth Bellor

    When my children were your son’s age, apps DID. NOT. EXIST. However, PBS and “Blue’s Clues” and other shows that were careful about how they engaged children did. Any child can be taught that watching Animal Planet for half an hour is to be considered a treat, like birthday cake or Nutella. I think it’s much less about the material than how it’s presented: routine or exception?

    • Monica Guzman

      I like that. “Routine,” or — maybe worse? — a sign that mom and dad don’t have lots of time for you right now and need you to be otherwise occupied. I grant that will probably happen here or there. At least, I’m prepared for the possibility. Our son has been pretty mellow so far but you never know what’ll happen…

  • boop

    People should get rid of their TVs the moment they find out they’re going to have a baby and not get another one until they left for college. Instead of “crawling into one of the deepest sinkholes of guilt,” put the little guy in a playpen when you need to get something done.

  • Orin O’Neill

    In the great cacophony of “expertise” about parenting, an important point that gets lost in the shuffle is this: every child is different. Some will do just fine interacting with screens at a very young age, others may not. Nobody knows your son better than you. Trust your instincts… another important point that gets lost is how resilient kids are. In spite of what some people believe, a minor misstep or two will not scar the little one for life. At least not if the little one’s parents have a good relationship with him/her. And it sounds like you do.

    So don’t feel guilty about anything you and Jason may or may not be doing in raising your son. When you first announced you were going to have a baby, I knew you both would be good, conscientious parents. Everybody wings it. I’ve long believed whatever harm might come to kids in cases like this is more the result of the kids picking up on adults’ hysterical reactions than any “damage” done to the kids themselves. Your mom is right. You turned out fine. So will your son.

    • Monica Guzman

      Hear, hear. Like I hinted in the column, the parenting brain does often feel like it teeters precariously close to overreaction on lots of little things. Luckily a sensible part of me does recognize that one false move here does not doom a child. And like Todd said – everything in moderation. We’re going to a learn a lot by doing, and by just getting to know our son. Thanks.

  • ricrude

    At seven months old my daughter is already fascinated by Cartoon Network and the iPad. I don’t want it to expand further, especially since my mother limited my TV viewing to PBS when I was little and encouraged me to read instead. One idea; write educational games and play them with your child. When he/she becomes curious how the games work you can introduce them to coding.

  • Kathy Slattengren

    You’re definitely smart, not paranoid, to consider the impact of screens on your son. I am appalled that pediatricians, psychologists and teachers are seeing babies and preschoolers with social, emotional and physical problems related to too much time on screens.

    Young kids definitely love screens and are happy to veg out in front of them in “The Trance” state you described. They’re happy, you can get things done … it’s a perfect recipe for leaving them entertained by screens for long periods of time. Unfortunately that’s what happens to too many babies and preschoolers.

    • Monica Guzman

      Right. The “substitute parent” thing is part of what freaks me out. But then again – I miss my me time and I know I’m only going to miss it more as our family grows. Plus: TV is part of culture. An important part. It’s hardly the devil. It’s one way all of us from such different parts of the country can speak the same language and share some of the same experiences. It’s just about timing, and gut.

  • Frank Field

    You’re going to hear from a fair amount of “experts,” and I’ll not offer myself up as one. I’ll just offer my own experience. And you can put me squarely in the “every kid is different” camp of folks who think each child will react differently to screen time and that it’s not all-good or all-bad for kids to have screen time.

    Having said that, I used to be ON television and my wife and I made our decision on exposure to screens based on content and content alone. If we feel an app, show or video delivers something useful to our kids, then we let them have it.

    And our experience with our 7- and 4-year-old turned up different results. I was a full-time dad with our oldest, and we were given a set of DVDs that purported to help develop reading skills. Initially, for me, they were nothing more than a wonderful way to be left alone long enough to use the bathroom or prepare a quick meal for us. Interestingly, our oldest did develop pretty advanced verbal skills (her doctor was regularly amazed at how well he could carry on a conversation with her well before some kids formed complete sentences, let alone cogent thoughts in multiple paragraphs). And she was reading before most of the kids in her kindergarten class.

    Our second daughter was also exposed to these DVDs but she simply wasn’t interested. She’d watch for a couple of minutes, but after that she wanted to so something else.

    Same goes for TV. The oldest will sit and take in a film or an entire episode of Sid the Science Kid, whereas the younger one will watch for a few minutes, and then get up to go do something else.

    Our oldest has seen her classmates catch up to her cognitive abilities and our youngest is starting to read despite not getting the same amount of exposure.

    Neither were allowed to watch Daddy do his job reporting unless I had texted my wife to let her know that the content of the program was OK for little ones to see (hardly ever the case), which was tough on them since at the time they saw so little of me after years of seeing me full-time at home.

    These days, they get to watch PBSKids or select films while I cook dinner, and only after they have picked up their room or done whatever tasks have been assigned to them. This amounts to 30-60 minutes total per day. And they seem fine. I think as long as the content isn’t vapid dreck (the bulk of what I see on TV), it’s not going to kill them if they get the love, face time, one-on-one reading time and play to go along with it (which, happily, our kids do get).

    Anyway… Good for you for thinking about what’s best for YOUR child. A lot of parents never stop to ponder whether they’re doing the right thing. So, no matter what anybody else thinks of your decision, I wish you the best of luck as you continue to navigate the tough waters that are parenting.

  • Adriana Gil Miner

    I think we are kidding ourselves with the idea that interactive apps or educational content is somewhat better than Barneys (I’m 100% anti-Barney. Can’t stand it.) It’s still screen time and it’s not a good way to teach anything to a kid. BUT, I’m with Todd on the everything with moderation thing (that’s the parents’ job) and explaining to the kid what’s going on. Consuming media in any way is part of our their (and ours) world. It’s our job to teach them how to control it and be critical about it. Even when they are little. And BTW I think your mom is right. You’re over thinking it. The more I get into this parental journey, the less I sweat the little things. My little ones watch TV. We even make a thing out of it, and have special movie nights and we talk about the characters and the story. Do you know how fun it is to sing Mary Poppins songs again?! It’s SO fun! And it’s ok that it’s just fun. I don’t think we have to try to dress it up with educational interactive excuses. It’s just screen time so treat it like it — with moderation and supervision. Now repeat after me: I’m a good parent and so are you.

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