Screen Time: How, Why, and What Works for Us

parenting Aug 28, 2019

I walked into Anthropologie the other day. I was overjoyed because it would be so much fun to get a chance to swoon over the absurdly priced items I’d never buy, letting my fingers glide over the gorgeous cookware and fabrics, taking my sweet time. I was so relaxed. My trashy audiobook was slowly humming through my headphones and my coffee was still hot; a rare treat.

“Whoa,” said the store clerk, snapping me out of my daze. “He’s really, really into that…” He raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips before turning to walk over to a fresh rack of dresses he began to steam.

I stood there for a second, confused.

Then, I looked down to see what he was referring to.

And, lo and behold, there it was: my almost-2-year-old, his pupils wide and his lips slightly parted as he stared intently at a random Old MacDonald rendition playing on a lime green fire tablet.

If this had happened a few months ago, I know I would have ran out to a bench and cried my eyes out at that simple comment the clerk made. I know I would have purchased every book regarding screen time from every bookstore that existed and spent hours between my homework assignments trying to find ways to shield my child from the dark hell that is screen time.

Today, however, 22 months after popping little Zaki out from my body, I really didn’t care. In fact, I actually kind of smiled at myself. It’s cute that some guy working at a store is so shook and so concerned about how I parent. Thanks, random Anthropologie clerk. Way to be productive!

Whether it’s regarding the dreaded momo challenge or the random porn-y themes lingering around the internet, navigating screen time is often a vast, terrifying world for a parent. Some begin setting boundaries and limitations right from the get-go, while others swear it’s the devil. It is clear from my Anthro anecdote I’m not of the latter group of folks.

We have a place for screen time in this family, and I wanted to share how we introduced it, how we managed it, and why we decided to go this particular route.

  • We avoided screen time until my son was about a year old. Granted, there were a few instances when we just had to shut the kid up for a minute or two while we were driving home during mid-meltdown or on an airplane, though that was maybe once or twice a month. We got him hooked on a few soothing songs (and a few not-so-soothing songs—ahem—thanks Pinkfong) and played those on Spotify if he was super fussy. He would listen to these songs while he played or whatever else infa-tods do.
  • Why did we wait? Honestly, I don’t really have a straightforward answer for that. We just didn’t want him to know that this vessel of entertainment was an option for him at that age. Was it hard? Yes, it was super hard. Especially because we KNEW that if we popped the TV on, he would sit still for a few minutes and we could get a bunch of stuff done. We just weren’t in that head space at that time, and you have to listen to yourself and make a decision for your own family as for what’s best. When Zaki’s grandmas or grandpas would babysit him, they would respect our rule, but we knew that they were already doing us a huge favor by babysitting, so we weren’t jerks about it haha.
  • We slowly began implementing screen time a few times a week between the 12-month and 14-month mark. At this age, I feel like Zaki was so much more active. He’d tire himself out physically and would just want to hang out and watch something. It also became more and more difficult to entertain him 100% of the time, so we decided to begin adding screen time into the equation.
  • When beginning to add screen time, we limited his exposure to three different videos. I don’t know if there are any scientific studies on this, but we just found three videos that we watched thoroughly and decided were things we’d want our kid to watch. We really liked The Wiggles, and there is a 45-minute video on YouTube that got him up and dancing. It was so cool watching him grow his vocabulary and to see him do the entire “Rock-a-Bye-Your-Bear” dance from memory. Our son wasn’t super into cartoons then and preferred seeing real people in his shows, so that Wiggles video was perfect. Another video we would play was the Arabic Alphabet song with Zaky. This is an Islamic kid’s video, and if you’re not Muslim and want to expose your children to your respective religion, you can probably find lots of videos on YouTtube that are super catchy and cute. The third video was, of course, the dreaded Baby Shark loop. Lol.
  • At the 20-month mark, we began implementing 30-60 minutes of screentime a day. He also began going to Montessori at this age, so for four hours a day, he was having constant human interaction, was learning things, and was playing with other kids. When he’d come home, he would be incredibly tired but not quite ready for a nap. Zaki’s screen time during this time would be him eating a snack while snuggling up close to me so I could just hug him after his day. It calmed him down before his nap.

We are at the 22-month mark now, and are still following the 30-60 minute rule. It’s been working very well for us, and here are some other notes regarding our use of screen time:

  • We “watch” with him. Even if I am doing chores or if my husband is working from home, we frequently check in with Zaki while he is watching TV. Sometimes, he’d just be frozen, sitting there drooling while being entranced by his shows. To break the trance, we would call his name and ask questions about what he was watching (Whoa! Is he eating pizza?! Wow! What animal says “moo?”). This usually snapped him out of the aimless watching and allowed him to be really engaged and enjoy talking about the songs and videos. I was amazed at how much his vocabulary grew because of the songs, and how we could apply them to real life. One such example is the Wheels on the Bus. We had to take an airport bus recently and Zaki was BEYOND fascinated seeing all of the references from the song.
  • We still limit his video bank. One thing I like about the fire tablet (or maybe it’s just because ours is a ratchet $30 one) is that we have to preload the tablet with videos. There are about five videos on there. He’s currently obsessed with Cocomelon and Dave & Ava.
  • He isn’t allowed to hold his tablet or click around on the screen himself. He can choose what video he wants to watch, but he has to ask us if he wants to repeat the song/video or if he wants another one. This helps keep us in control and keeps him mindful of what he’s doing/watching. Instead of letting him hold his tablet, we got this case that just stands up.
  • No TV during meals. We are ok with snacks during screen time, but not full-on meals. As a 25-year-old, I struggle tremendously when it comes to mindful eating, and I don’t want him to have this struggle when he’s older.
  • Listen to your gut and set boundaries. I feel like being on the same page with myself and my spouse regarding our expectations for screen time was so huge in not making me feel guilty. You just need to be honest with yourself. Setting clear boundaries helps a lot. That’s why we really like choosing what he watches and how he watches it (not holding the tablet, not during meals, etc.).
  • Trust yourself to make the right call. Some days might suck and you might need to rely on some good old TV to get stuff done. Some days you might be out to dinner with your spouse far too close to your kid’s bedtime and might need to give your child a pacifier and turn on a favorite show so you two can have a conversation in peace. Life happens, and you know what you need to do.

Like other parenting topics, screen time can be a sensitive one. There’s never a clear, perfect answer and every kid is very different. I hope hearing my tips on how I implemented and maintain screen time was helpful.

Thanks for taking the time to read this!

Xoxo,

Zara

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