Original post: November 19, 2013
I was one of those moms who vehemently stated that my child would follow the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines and not have any developmentally destructive “screen time” before age 2.
That assertion lasted until I gave birth when zoning out in front of the television was one of the few things that didn’t send my post-partum-depressed self reaching for the Xanax. During that first winter, watching movies with my husband while endlessly nursing my newborn became a regular activity. With Sofie’s limited infant vision, I didn’t feel terribly anxious about it then.
However, when her television consumption steadily grew over the next 18 months, so did my guilt.
It began with intense crying bouts of nighttime teething during which we quickly learned that a Baby Einstein video (shower gift from wiser friends) was one of the only things that would calm my daughter. Too easily, Baby Einstein went from teething distraction to give-me-enough-time-to-make-dinner babysitter to Mommy-just-needs-a-break! video madness. Of course, I felt like a bad mom. Where did my initial resolve go?
And why does the AAP advise against screen time? What’s the harm of television for children under two?
Research has shown that age period to be a most significant one in the brain’s development; television images can confuse and slow that growth, especially in areas of language development and reading. Studies show that babies and toddlers learn best from human interaction and unstructured play. Screen time is like mental junk food for their brain.
I’d love to say that we bit the bullet and locked the TV in a closet for two years, but we didn’t. Instead, we screened Sofie’s shows and tried to maintain some standards.
You can’t go wrong with Sesame Street an educational show that stands the test of time. Dora The Explorer, with its focus on animals and exploring the environment, gained our parental approval. I remember watching a Dora episode with Sofie in which she learned how to recognize ecological landmarks, say “mudslide” and bleat like a mountain goat. All good things.
In contrast, my husband banned Bob The Builder after previewing an episode in which Bob and friends recklessly dug up acres of coastal land, undoubtedly destroying several ecosystems in the process. Definitely not the kind of message we wanted our daughter to internalize.
As a family, we regularly followed only one show at the time--American Idol—a choice I rationalized as “music appreciation” while our musically-inclined daughter would sing and clap along.
While I still struggled internally with the fact that Sofie watched television before age two, I knew she watched far less than many other children. And I made sure to balance her screen time with plenty of unstructured play including reading, drawing, building, dancing and, like Dora, exploring the great outdoors.
The fact that we usually watched and discussed the shows as a family makes a big difference from using television as babysitter or as constant background noise. Today, of course, there are tablets and phones to add to the “screen time” worries of parents. I applaud those parents who do follow the AAP guidelines, as they are made of stronger stuff than I. I am glad we only had the TV to contend with when my daughter was young.
Now that she is seven, I can see that some early exposure did not harm her development. Sofie was speaking in full sentences before she could walk and now devours chapter books in one sitting. TV and videos are still a part of our family life, but not a big part. I guess we approach this “mental junk food” the way we approach edible junk food—everything in moderation.
You can download this “Green Time vs. Screen Time” tool from Nature Play to see how your child’s screen time compares to outdoor activities.
What are your thoughts? How do you handle TV and young children?
I have a confession. Yesterday, I bought my daughter a Barbie.
Once upon a time, I swore there’d be no Barbies in our house so that Sofie would be free from cultural feminine stereotypes and negative messages about her body. But lately, with Barbie Fever running rampant through her peers, I’ve been rethinking my position.
Perhaps I’m melting under pressure of her soulful, pleading face as she suggests to me that maybe one day, when she’s big enough, she can have her own Barbie. Or perhaps it’s due to a vision of my anorexic, fake-blond adult daughter one day informing her therapist that all her body image issues stem from having never been allowed to own the coveted doll.
There is some truth to that. I know that the forbidden object only increases in its desirability and, therefore, its effect. And similar to the toy gun issue … even if you ban them from your house, your kids will turn something else into a pretend gun.
My sisters and I played with Barbies. There was no stigma then. She was just another doll everyone had. I chopped her hair, sent her on dates with Ken and eventually abandoned her in a toy bin along with a bunch of other less sinister dolls.
Avoiding Barbie will not avoid negative messages. Sofie will be bombarded with them all her life. My job is simply to equip her with the self-esteem and inner strength to withstand the onslaught. I can’t bury my head in the sand about it. Better to face the enemy head on. Give her the Barbie to play with. And keep giving her positive messages about her body.
Ballerina Barbie is the one Sofie really wants. I bought it at Walmart, which feels like it only compounds the sin. I did at least avoid the blond, pink-attired cliché, and chose the more sensible brunette wearing purple. (As a side note: the ballerina doll has flexible feet that stand flat!) I draw the line at Barbie’s numerous plastic accessories and acquisitions. She can live in the wooden dollhouse Sofie already has.
What they really need is an Eco Barbie (made from all recyclable materials). She’d be wearing second-hand clothes (a “Respect Your Mother” T-shirt), no makeup and jewelry made from salvaged metals. Eco Barbie would come complete with her own recycling accessories, a hybrid car and an organic canvas Dream Yurt.
This whole Barbie issue reminds me how uncertain parenting is. So many things I was once adamant about can simply slip away into indifference, while issues I never expected can blindside me. Accepting that I can change my mind mid-game continues to be a refreshing revelation.
About the Blog
Donna created her Eco-Mothering blog while working for an environmental non-profit. Her motivation was two-fold: to document her new parenting journey and to share eco-friendly information with a larger community. This blog will highlight a selection of posts from eight years of writing at Eco-Mothering.com