Any mom who hasn’t had her head under a rock for the past ten years knows the ugly truth about screen time. Screens are bad for kids. TV is bad and iPads are bad and smart phone apps are equally bad. They fry baby’s brains and they make toddlers even more impatient than they already are and they ruin older kid’s creativity, destroying any possibility that your child will ever become the next Steve Jobs, which is ironic since screen time was invented by Steve Jobs. The light from screens is the reason why your kid won’t sleep at night, and the radioactive waves from screened devices will give them cancer, and the evil little-kid characters on the shows will make them whiny and rude and violent.

That’s the truth about screen time.

But it’s not the whole truth.

Because screen time is like chocolate. No, it’s like triple chocolate fudge ice cream with syrup and chocolate chips and whipped cream. It’s terrible for you in the short term and terrible in the long term. It gives you a sugar low and a headache and it makes you fat. But in that transcendent moment when the chocolate fudge hits your taste buds, it’s so, so good.

So here’s the other truth about screen time. Used sparingly, it can transform your kids from wild, screaming dervishes who scatter toys and crumbs all over the house into content, complacent creatures who sit motionless and quiet– did I say quiet? — for an hour or more. It can give you time to finish folding the laundry without a toddler undoing every fold faster than you can straighten them. It can let you cook dinner in peace, without any fear that the oil from your frying pan will splatter up and burn the baby on your hip. It can give you a solid 30 minutes to finish the project or proposal or phone call you’ve been working on in 30-second increments all day long.

In other words, it can change your life.

And that is why no parent of young children should ever give up screens entirely. Unless you live in a hippie commune with 50 other families, all of whom have children of various ages who will entertain and supervise your children while they all play happily in the beautiful playground handmade of recycled materials in the center of your commune common space surrounded by cob houses, you need screens in your life. And if your parents or older relatives tell you that you managed just fine as a toddler without an iPad to entertain you, ignore them. Trust me: the only reason you survived toddlerhood without an iPad is because iPads didn’t exist yet. [Tweet “The only reason you survived toddlerhood without an iPad is because iPads didn’t exist yet. “]

But as with all parenting aids, the key is moderation. Screens are like crack cocaine — the more you use them, the less effective they become. So the secret to using them properly is to save them for when you really need them.

Here’s your guide for when you really need them.

Never Use Screens…

…for background noise. If you need background noise, turn on the radio. You’re too modern for a radio? Play podcasts. Kids complain about podcasts? Play Disney song & story audiobooks.

…when your kid has friends over. Unless the friends are actually frenemies and they can’t stop fighting, in which case you can use screens for brief periods, to break up the fights and reset the friendship.

…when you’ve recently bought a new toy, unless of course the screen is the new toy. Otherwise, give your kid the toy instead.

…on bright, sunny mornings. Why? Because when it’s sunny outside, it’s very important to get your kid outside as soon as possible. Exposing him to sunlight shortly after waking will program his circadian rhythm, which will eventually help him sleep at night. Screen light in the morning will deprogram his circadian rhythms and turn him into a sleepwalking vampire who stays up all night. So if you possibly can, save the screens till after lunch.

Always use screens…

…on road trips. This is what they were invented for. Road trips override all other rules.

…when your kid is sick. Especially if your kid is a toddler. Especially if he needs to rest but doesn’t feel sick. The screen will magically hold him motionless, enabling his body to rest and recover. While also distracting him from his sickness. That’s good parenting.

Use screens sparingly…

…when you really, really need to get work done. Avoid this on a regular basis, because novelty is key here. But when you absolutely have to meet a deadline or take a call, the magic of the screen can make it possible.

…at bedtime. The secret here is to put it last in your bedtime routine. Make it a bribe for all that toothbrushing and pajama-putting-on. This little trick made our bedtime routine go from hours to minutes instantly. Keep in mind, though, that the light from the screen can disastrously disrupt your child’s circadian rhythms, making his brain think it’s morning when it’s actually evening and destroying any good you did by going outside when it really was morning. You’ve been warned. Use sparingly.

…at restaurants. Best bet: bring lots of toys and busy bags, and keep the screen in your back pocket as a last resort. Bring it out as necessary between when the busy bags get boring and before the food comes.

…while you’re cooking dinner. Ideally, of course, your kids will help you cook dinner. Also ideally, you’ll send your kids outside to play and wear themselves out before dinner so they’ll be tired at bedtime. But on days when you’ve been counting the seconds to bedtime since 10 am, or if you have a three year old at home, it’s completely acceptable to put on the electronic babysitter at dinnertime.

…when your child is acting like a monster, a zombie, or a three year old. Desperate times call for desperate measures. For best results, combine with a small serving of wine. For you. Not your kid. Unless things are really desperate.

If your situation doesn’t fall into any of these descriptions…

…use your best judgement. Just remember this: frying your kid’s brain is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, you need to kill a few brain cells. You don’t want your kids to be too smart. Because the only thing worse than a three year old without television is a thirteen year old who can outsmart you.

Photo by Leonid Mamchenkov via Flicrk


Catherine Root SibumaOctober 8, 2013 3:40 pm

Rock on! Well utilized screen time is the bomb.

Catherine Root SibumaOctober 8, 2013 3:49 pm

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Teneisha JonesOctober 8, 2013 3:57 pm

oh i need to read this. We have been sliding down the slippery slope recently.

Teneisha JonesOctober 8, 2013 4:02 pm

Oh now that I read it it sounds like how we already use it 🙂 My kid just asks for it A LOT.

Beth AlbrechtOctober 8, 2013 4:20 pm

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Dona BumgarnerOctober 8, 2013 4:35 pm

Thank you for this. You have outlined exactly how I use screens to walk the line of my sanity, though I still feel guilty about saying yes to the screen at all. I feel much more vindicated now!

Samantha Renee BilodeauOctober 8, 2013 5:24 pm

Samantha Renee Bilodeau liked this on Facebook.

Rachel Ruth Smith BeltranOctober 8, 2013 9:23 pm

I was reading this awesome article, when suddenly I felt like I was standing on the corner of Grant and Bass, dangerously close to 9am; and it struck me that YOU wrote this article! Pure brilliance, Lisa. Then I remembered that a certain 5-year-old was absent today, and I realized that you must have been speaking straight from the heart. 😉

Lisa BakerOctober 8, 2013 9:31 pm

Hahaha Rachel! Always. I always speak straight from the heart!

Anna Martin WinterOctober 8, 2013 11:16 pm

Anna Martin Winter liked this on Facebook.

TiceWritesOctober 14, 2013 4:15 pm

I can just tell your kids are young from reading this. Speaking as the mom of a 20-year old who washed out of college because he couldn’t stop gaming…I’m here to tell you, you CAN do without screens. And if you value your child’s ability to function as an independent adult in the future, you will.

Road trips? We listen to audiobooks. We tried the movie option and all they did was fight about who got to see what when.

Making dinner? Get them involved, or let them bang on pots.

It’s amazing how we lived through all of recorded time and beyond without screens at home or on the go (AND without labor-saving modern devices like ovens and washers!), but now we’re advised that we should never consider giving them up entirely. Because…obviously, we’d die if we couldn’t plug them into the electronic babysitter now and then.

I actually do use it on the chocolate method with my younger two – rare treat. Screens should never become part of the routine — oh, mom makes dinner so that’s an hour of screens for you. An hour of screens a WEEK is pushing it for a toddler in terms of what’s healthy. As you said, play music. Have a tub of special toys or dress-up clothes they can only use while you make dinner. There are SO many other solutions. Flip your switch and tell the kids the power’s out…and then see what you come up with for entertainment.

And when your kid JUST WON’T SHUT UP about how much they need an iPad, or a DS, or whatever screen they’re hooked on that ALL their friends have…is when you know it’s time to ban them forever.

lcbaker October 16 2013 09:13 am

Thanks for commenting, Carol! Of course you're right...screens are terrible and really, we should never use them. My daughter *never* saw a screen when she was little. Except on vacation when my relatives turned it on, and I was pretty upset about that at the time. Then she quit napping at 18 months (yes, she had some physical problems that caused that...but we didn't figure them out for 2 more years), and then she quit sleeping at night too (literally was up from 11 pm to 6 am on a regular basis) and and and...well. My brain stopped working. Sleep deprivation will do that to you. The rest is history. And then when we finally figured out her sleep issues, I went and had another baby. So I agree: we don't need screens, ever. But the reality is, sometimes they make life easier, and that's OKAY. It's not the end of the world. There are so many things out there telling parents why we need to feel guilty about EVERYTHING. But I'm pretty sure that most of my readers aren't making inordinate use of screens. They're turning them on because Mom hasn't slept in 3 days and baby and toddler have both been screaming their brains out all day and she just doesn't have the energy or creativity to bring out some pots and start a drum band during dinner. And that's totally ok. She shouldn't feel guilty. Her needs matter too.

And btw, I wasn't allowed to watch TV at all as a kid...when I was older I was allowed to watch one hour a week. If I complained about being bored, my mom kicked me out in the yard and locked the door. Which is totally the right thing to do and it's exactly what I'm going to do as soon as I feel like my kids are big enough to kick out in the yard by themselves. :)

Sophie LizardOctober 20, 2013 2:34 pm

Ah, the screens. The main reason we take our daughter to a nursery school is so that we can keep her away from the screens that are on all day long while we work. 🙂

Now if you can tell me how to get my fiance to switch off the seemingly endless football coverage, I’ll be all set…

GAGAforGFOctober 20, 2013 7:35 pm

Do’s & Dont’s of screen time for kids – interesting guide: “@lisacbaker:” @HMaJPD

Bianca @ The Pierogie MamaOctober 24, 2013 6:34 pm

I included this post in my monthly round up of reads. Thank you for a well written article!

lcbaker October 25 2013 00:46 am

Thanks, Bianca!

SteffiApril 23, 2014 1:59 pm

I totally agree with this, but at the same time, we are a “tech” family. My boyfriend has a degree in electrical engineering and built his first computer at the age of 8 years old. He also completely dismantled and rebuilt his mother’s brand new TV when she upgraded from the old console TVs for the first time. It worked perfectly afterward too. He has been PC gaming since the days when you had to WRITE the games, no disc, you got a coding book. So to the mom that blames TVs, Video Games and other screens for her son failing out of college, your wrong. It wasn’t the screen time that corrupted his will to go to school, he just didn’t care enough, maybe he has no work ethic. I’m sorry, but you can’t blame electronics for a 20 year old dropping out college, he’s an adult and it’s his choice. My boyfriend is living proof that you can be obsessed with technology, watch it and play it every day for 25 years and still become a successful, functioning human being with no mental disabilities or attention issues what-so-ever. Recent studies and shown that toddlers under the age of 2 that were given iPads to play with, watch, etc, had more problems paying attention than children who didn’t. But does that mean that letting your kid watch a grand total of 3 and a half hours of TV a week (that is equivalent to 30 minutes/day while Mom cooks) going to lead to attention disorders? No. With everything in life, moderation is the key. Can we live without TVs? Of course we can. Should we just because we can? Not necessarily. It’s like the natural child birth argument I had with a friend of mine when she heard I was getting an epidural. “Women have been delivering babies without meds since the caveman days!” Yeah, okay, and? Just because they did back then means I have to ignore modern-day medicine when it is offered to me and is no risk to my child? No, not a good enough reason. I can also hit myself in the head with a hammer. Should I just because I can? >.< I am all for technology for kids. My son will get his own tablet when he is 3, full of learning games that Mommy and Daddy will play with him and movies to watch on trips and during quiet play. He will build his own computer with Dad's help when he wants his own. This is the technological age and there is a real fear of us losing this technology because kids today don't know how it works. It's just a magic box. So let them learn, play and explore electronics. Let them watch educational programs so they can learn something new. They don't have to rot away watching crap, just don't take away such a good learning tool. Just yesterday my 1 year old clapped along with Dora for the first time. He's been clapping for awhile now, but it showed that he was actually processing what he was watching, he is learning. And knowledge is power. 🙂

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