Giving very young children screen time is like giving them Benadryl for the sole purpose of getting them to sleep. When I say the screen is ‘like’ the drug, I am not using a simile; I mean it quite literally. In this essay, I am talking about screen use in children two and younger. Many studies have now shown that screen watching is cognitively problematic to young children. The educational claims of companies such as Baby Einstein have been successfully repudiated in court. Adults may perceive that children are entertained, describing their babies and toddlers as mesmerized by the screens. In fact, the adults may be observing a child in a shut-down state due to sensory confusion and over-stimulation. Either way, it keeps the kid quiet for a while. Benadryl given to knock -out kids (I am only talking about Benedryl given for that purpose, not Benedryl as a medical treatment with a side-effect of sleepiness), does not seem to damage the kid, and it’s not like it’s addictive, and it certainly keeps them quiet for a while.
I learned a useful new phrase from Jim Steyer of Common Sense Media. In speeches exhorting adults to give kids more face time and nature time and book time and less screen time, he refers to smartphones and such in the hands of little ones as “shut-up toys”. That is, they are not provided to children for the child’s education or amusement or to help the child connect with anything. They are not given to the child for the child’s sake at all, but for the sake of the adult with the child who wants or needs the child to be still and quiet.
You may think that my argument will now proceed this way:
baby ipad = drugging your baby
drugging your baby = wrong
baby ipad = wrong
That is not going to be my point here. I am not going to claim that it is always wrong to slip your toddler a Micky, just like it is not always wrong to temporarily zombify your little one with a screen. Instead, I want to make this point: those two acts are similar, and should be treated with the same level of careful scrutiny. Additionally, I hope to present a compelling reason why we should mostly not do these things.
I will clarify why drugging kids seem wrong to us, and suggest that the same reasoning applies to screen-use. I think it we can all agree that it would be wrong to drug your child on a regular basis to avoid having to deal with her. If your child is making normal playing noises and you want to watch TV in a quiet house, you don’t get to drug your kid. The kind of case where intuitions vary, and where many people think it is ok, is the trans-Atlantic flight example. If kept awake, the child will be forced to endure boredom, physical discomfort, and emotional stress. He will likely suffer and not suffer silently, causing irritation to you, yes, but also all of the other people on the plane. Many, parents think this is an acceptable use of drugs given to a child that is not ill or experiencing an allergic reaction.
I think we should think the same way about screen time for babies and toddlers. If you are ‘knocking them out’ of normal consciousness just because it is more pleasant for you than to have an alert child, it is problematic. There are cases however, such as when a child is enduring a medical procedure or when the parent is at their wit’s end, that it may be an acceptable choice. ‘Wit’s end’ by the way, seems like such an apt name for that feeling I felt as a parent of a baby that would not stop screaming. Though I accepted the expert advice to pay attention to my crying baby and try to comfort her, I was very grateful to have been given the advice that sometimes the right thing to do is just to take a nice long shower while the baby cries in her crib. For similar reasons in limited situations it is arguably ok for the little one to zone out on screens. Mostly, though, it isn’t.
If you sometimes want your kid to shut up, it does not make you a bad person or a bad parent. I have loved and loved deep, but I have never experienced love strong enough to erase the desire that the object of my love sometimes just shut their pie hole for one blessed minute. Why then, would it ever be wrong to distract them from fuss and neediness with screens (or drugs)? Because children are entitled to experience actual life. It is their birthright, and it is the responsibility of parents and teachers to allow children to experience life rather than anesthetizing them from it. I do not mean that we need to set them off in the woods alone or contrive experiences, just that they should not be kept from normal, real life, with normal real feelings. We do not get to choose for our children that they take the Matrix’s red pill. Perhaps, as adults, they may choose to do something like that, and I think most of us would think that sad. We must at least, though, leave open the possibility for them to have maximally authentic lives by allowing them to experience the world while engaged and conscious.
I have focused here on babies and toddlers, because that is the focus of the bulk of research damning screen time. I want to suggest, though, that much of this same reasoning applies to older children as well. Of course they deserve some entertainment and they do even learn stuff from screens. Mostly, though, they deserve to experience their own real feelings and their own thoughts and their own adventures. This may make things less pleasant for the child and the parent. Your child may experience boredom or irritation and so might you. You might get less other stuff done while you are with you kid. Your child may have to daydream or think thoughts or feel feelings or take in new information about the world every single second he is awake. It worked for the real baby Einstein, though, so it’s probably good enough for the rest of us.