I have a 9-year-old, and every time there’s downtime, she asks if she can “please watch something.” At that moment, I reflexively run through an informal tally of how much she’s probably already watched that day. The magic number I’m mentally calculating up to is two hours. This is off a 2018 study that found that when kids have more than two hours absorbing the flickering blue wavelength, there are adverse effects with language, sleep and processing. I want her to have a good brain, so I do my best.
This past week, though, the World Health Organization suggested that children get no screen time whatsoever under age 2, and kids spanning age 2 to 5 should have their screen time limited to one hour per day.
My first thought was whew, because the truth is, I really have no idea how much screen time she actually gets! Did she watch cartoons at her dad’s this morning? How many screen-time lessons did the teacher use in the classroom today? The child literally has a school-issued laptop in the class. Didn’t we watch, like, three videos about cool ways to tie your shoelaces right after school, too? Wait, how long were those again?
But many parents with children right smack in the 2-to-5 age range had a different response, which was basically: Eat my balls, WHO.
Why? Because they are profoundly sleep-deprived, and they already know their kids get too much screen time. But most of all, because many parents work (at least one parent in 90 percent of all families in the U.S.), childcare is not cheap or easily available in this country, and working parents have to get some shit done.
And occupy their children in public.
And also teach them things — things that are easily found on screens.
In other words, working parents are tired of this shit.
While screen time can be used for many a purpose, working parents use it to occupy their children for a brief, glorious few moments, usually so they can cook, clean, chill out, make a phone call, speak with another human adult nearby, take a dump alone, or literally look away for more than 30 seconds so their child doesn’t impale themselves on the nearest spork. And also to teach their children cultural conversancy, because that is how we live now, and it is not going away.
It isn’t that we don’t care about screen time’s ill effects on our children’s well-being or brain development — though we may dispute the degree to which it’s true. It isn’t that everything our kids are watching is educational fodder, either: We watch everything from explainers on evolution to how systemic racism works to dumb music videos to viral content about people throwing slices of cheese on babies. Sometimes we peruse random memes for an hour and just laugh hysterically.
It’s that this choice is more complicated. It’s often weighed against the practical, pressing need to do many things at once in modern parenting scenarios and maintain enough sanity to get through another day in working, capitalist, corporate America. To say nothing of the rest of parenting that balances out screen time: the offscreen reading, the baths, the road trips, the grocery store, the random cuddling, the conversations about the news, the silly voices, the game of dice. It’s one of many tools parents use to make a day go, and we need every tool we can get.
Everyone needs to cool their fucking jets on this one. Rolling Stone‘s E.J. Dickson, mother to a toddler, tells me, “Limiting screen time is something we’re extremely conscious of, and I wouldn’t even say we exceed WHO guidelines by that much (though there are days when I’ve had to work or it’s been raining out where we definitely have, lol).” She takes issue with “the fact that there is absolutely no acknowledgment of the reality of parenting/parents’ day-to-day lives. And I REALLY take issue with parents who shame other parents for giving their kids, say, a phone when they go out to eat, because Jesus Christ have you ever been out to eat with a 2-year-old?”
Another mom I know online says she lets her toddler, who she’s sure overdoses daily on screen time, watch something “just when we are trying to make dinner or get ready for work or whatever. On the weekends we use it as chill time between activities.”
In both instances, both parents are working in these families, so it’s not as if they aren’t trading off duties at times, too. Maybe one of them can cook and the other can do some more engaging play. It’s that when you both come home exhausted from a long day, or work from home while keeping a child with you, you both compete for brief, critical moments of downtime that can’t always wait until the little ones are in bed and asleep.
This is something solvable only by more resources for more childcare, or the luxury of having a freely available parent who can devote him- or herself endlessly to children without compromising anything else. Unfortunately, it’s usually the mother expected to provide this sort of oversight. Dickson says that’s her major beef with the WHO recommendation: It reinforces classist, sexist ideals about childcare and resources.
“There’s a strong whiff of classism to it because unless you have the resources necessary to hire around-the-clock care, then there are times where you’re gonna have to plop the kid in front of the TV for a bit if you have to do work/cook, etc.,” she continues. “There’s also a strong whiff of sexism because most of this shaming is directed at mothers, and there’s this implication that if you’re a mother, you have to spend every second of your time in service of your child. And letting them watch TV or iPad is a way for you to be ‘lazy’ and get out of that.”
Interestingly, in Dickson’s case, she and her husband limit screen time for their son to just two or three half-hour episodes a day, nothing too egregious given the limits WHO and other organizations have advised. Which might lead us to ask ourselves why parents might bristle at such directives when they’re hardly noteworthy offenders.
The reason is that screen-time shaming is absolutely a thing, and it’s been going on for years. Parents tell story after story of family members, strangers and peers admonishing them for letting their kids use screens, or child-free people commenting that when they have kids, they’ll never even let them see a television.
It’s not just that it’s rude to criticize strangers’ parenting, it’s that it also tends to ignore the aforementioned realities of how deeply enmeshed with technology we all are today, the slog of parenting and working, and the fact that for some parents of children with autism or learning disabilities, it’s a godsend that has helped aid in communication and skill building.
Regardless, kids and screen time is a hot-button issue for kids at any age, especially through elementary school. And even beyond: Dire warnings are issued frequently that kids are getting way too much up through age 18, with some kids plopped in front of something for as much as seven hours a day. When you get that much screen time, you’re more likely to eat badly, be inundated with horrible ads for terrible foods and toys, and have more trouble falling asleep.
But it’s also worth noting that the WHO isn’t really the bad guy here. As the Verge notes, the real point of the guidelines was about finding any way to keep kids from being sedentary too long, and less about whether or not screen time is injurious in any other way aside from making us sit around doing nothing, eating. That’s a valid concern, something parents think about often in an era where running around for four hours a day outside until nightfall is no longer the norm for kids.
The bad guy is a system that refuses to accommodate working parents. And I do not know any parents who are literally outsourcing the whole job to a television. I think we overstate the issue because we’re more likely to see it in public when parents really need to keep their children in line. Because if they don’t, they’re just going to get shamed for having the rowdy kid having a meltdown at dinner.
There is no way for working parents to win this one. And after writing this, I will definitely find a video online to show my daughter about it so we can start that conversation, too.