The rules around screen time may feel overwhelming when you just need a parenting break. Parents.com's Ask Your Mom advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., explains how using the TV to get some time to recharge can benefit everyone's mental health.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
June 29, 2020
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Graphic by Julia Bohan

Dear Nearing Burnout,

Screen time has almost become a dirty word in the modern world of parenting, striking fear into our hearts of all the damage we must be doing if we sit our child in front of the TV. Yet, I remember my '80s latchkey afterschool routine consisting of settling in front of Hawaii Five-O as soon as I got home and watching my shows until my parents arrived home from work. Nobody was counting the hours back then.

We are not in the '80s anymore though, and the idea of “screen time” has transformed from zoning out in front of the TV to visions of 10-year-olds playing video games for 12 hours without blinking. As part of the survival mode of quarantining with our children, many have declared, “throw those screen time limits out the window!” As in most hot button parenting issues, however, there is usually a middle ground of moderation: you don’t need an absolute screen time ban or a free-for-all.

What Does the Research Say?

Parents have a general idea that “screen time is bad,” but the why and how are fuzzier. What exactly will happen to my child’s brain when I hand over the iPad, guilt included? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has distilled the research to date into recommendations that children under age 18 months do not use screens, and children up to 5 years old max out at one hour a day, with the caveat that their parents watch with them. (The AAP apparently does not realize we need the screen time as a break from parenting, not to do more parenting!)

The reality is that the science of screen time is ever-evolving, and there is still quite a bit unknown, as well as mixed findings about negative and even positive effects. What are the differences between the types of screens and their effects on children? Are some children more vulnerable to negative effects than others? What specifically changes in the brain? The National Institutes of Health has launched a decade-long study of 11,000 kids to answer these questions, making us wait with bated breath for results. In the meantime, the AAP has come out in support of virtual social connections despite this involving a screen, and has actually issued a disclaimer to not worry so much about screen time during the global pandemic.

“Me Time” is Essential

I have given thanks each and every day of this pandemic that my children are no longer toddlers! I could make up a few ideas for you to have "me time” without TV, but honestly, they would probably be more work instead of less (for example, set out safe crafts and set a timer for when she can leave her room!), and give you a brief respite instead of the true break you need, if they even work at all.

The “me time” you crave, however, is essential to your own well-being and should absolutely be prioritized, doctor’s orders! When you have time to be you—not the Mom mode version, but as a whole person—even for 20 minutes a day, it’s the fuel that keeps you going. Your daughter is fortunate to have such a committed mother willing to play with her most of the day—I’m here to testify that not all of us are capable of doing that. But you will be even more fun, patient, and present as a mother if you get some time for the full you.

Even if that means turning on the TV. In fact, research shows there can be benefits of educational programs. Children can indeed learn social and emotional skills from animated characters and even practice cognitive skills. Resources like Common Sense Media give great guidance around appropriate and enriching media for children of all ages. You and your daughter could pick some appealing shows and initially watch together to ensure you feel comfortable with the content before they become part of your routine.

Most shows for young kids are no more than 20 minutes, some even shorter. In all the TV-watching children I have known (and parented), this amount of time has pretty much no chance of turning your child into a junkie. She will probably like it, and yes, she will likely want more, but if you establish a consistent limit of 1-2 shows, she will adjust. Just like kids know they can only eat one cookie when they want the whole box.

Also setting your daughter up to FaceTime with another family member or friend who might do storytime could give you some alone time you need.

The Bottom Line

I can say with confidence that your child will not turn into an addict with a little TV time in her life. Media for young children can actually open up new worlds—introducing them to different ideas and ways to think and learn. We have become so focused as a society on the ills of uncontrolled screen time that we overlook the potential benefits of moderate screen time.

I still remember the liberation I felt when I introduced my toddler to Dora the Explorer. As soon as she was following along Dora’s adventure, and I could prepare dinner with some focus and quiet, I gave up and gave in. Later, I read a study about how kids who watched Dora had good vocabularies, so giving up and giving in worked out!

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns. 

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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