I’ve been thinking a lot about screen time and its vilification. I’ve been thinking about how I don’t limit it for my children and that their favorite toys are costumes, because with costumes they can imitate what they’ve watched or played on their iPad, they can interact with the content, bring it to life, expand upon it and truly absorb it. So here are my suggestions to parents of young children on how to do screen time right:
Control the content they consume. For TV this means making sure they are watching things with no commercials, turn off autoplay on Hulu and Netflix, so that it doesn’t just keep serving up an infinite pile of cartoons. Make it so that each show they watch has to be considered and when they finish it, it has to be a conscious choice to watch something else.
For tablet time, stay away from sites like Youtube that not only serve up an endless stream of video, but even try and guide you to what you should watch next. This is a recipe for your children to deviate from quality shows to whatever crap is popular at the moment.
Chose their content rather than just going with whatever the platform wants to serve up. Pay the 1-4$ for thoughtful, well constructed apps rather than getting free ones where they have to come up with clever ways to monetize your child’s playtime. Don’t assume if a TV show claims it’s educational that it’s actually good for your kid. PBS plays Thomas the Train, which is disturbingly full of classist and defeatist messaging. Pick things that came with a trusted recommendation, or better yet, that you’ve watched yourself and know is good.
Representation matters. Media shapes how your child views the world. It is as powerful as your one on one time and school, so make sure your kid is being exposed to gender balanced content that represents different ethnicities. You want your kid to grow up knowing there are both kids that do and don’t look like them out there, ones who share their same traditions and ones that don’t.
Watch/play the content with little one. You don’t need to watch all 100+ episodes of Blaze and the Monster Machine or beat Teach Your Monster to Reed with your child, but you should know it well enough that when they reference the robot that flings cupcakes or dancing letters that make phonetic sounds, you know what they’re talking about. This is probably the most important thing. Even if your kid is watching shows that are harmless drivel, like Paw Patrol, you need to know who the characters are and the plots of any episodes that your kid is watching more than once, this allows you to lead him/her in play and expand upon that world. If you kids say they are Rocky and Chase, you need to be able to say “then I’m Sky!”
Buy your children play aids that correspond with the media they are consuming. The bigger a hit this is the easier it can be, but even if you can’t find Doozer costumes or Zack & Quack dolls, you can probably find generic stuff (which is also cheaper) that they can use to act out their episodes or pretend to be the character. With my son, just having a closet full of solid colored outfits of different hues is enough for him to have something suited to whatever character he fancies that day. After all a lot of little kid character designs relies on having a color theme.