In episode 176 of ATP, Casey, John and Marco discussed their thoughts on “screen time” for kids and whether or not parents should limit the amount of time their kids spend in front of screens of any kind. It caused me to reminisce about my own childhood as well as my [few] experiences with babies and screens, so I thought I’d share those memories here. (They might be kinda boring, so the tl;dr version is: I think screens are A-OK!)
A Childhood of Screens
You might know me as the stay-at-home mom who codes on the farm, but I actually grew up in Bristol, Connecticut. I have very fond memories of our house there; most of them involve me playing outside in our gigantic backyard: finding salamanders under rocks, riding around in my little motorized Jeep, trying to start fires with a magnifying glass…you know, kid stuff.
However, my mom worked a late shift so there was a period of time in the afternoon before my dad got home that I spent with a babysitter—a lovely, middle-aged French Canadian woman named Leona. “Ona” and I watched a LOT of television. I always joke that I learned how to spell by watching Wheel of Fortune. We watched the usual slew of early evening sitcoms (the one I remember most clearly is Roseanne) and I watched my favorite movie, Homeward Bound, at least a million times.
When I was 7, my family moved to Ohio and several things happened: 1) I started at a new school in the middle of second grade, 2) My parents bought me a TV for my room, and 3) I got a Super Nintendo. I had a hard time making friends in Ohio, so I spent lots of time playing Donkey Kong Country, pouring over Nintendo Power magazines, and watching TV. Every night I’d fall asleep watching Nick at Nite, through which I became familiar with many of the shows of my parents’ time: I Love Lucy, The Jeffersons, Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, Bewitched, Happy Days, and more. In many ways, I think those shows helped me understand how adults related to one another, as well as develop a sense of humor and empathy.
Still, I spent plenty of time not looking at screens. Ohio used to be underwater once upon a time, and my parents and I would visit parks where you could dig for fossils of sea creatures. I also became interested in model trains, so we’d visit train museums and displays around the state.
Two years later, when I was 9, we moved to Nebraska. I spent hours on the family computer, playing with virtual pets, learning HTML, and discovering a vast world of pirated content. I’m pretty sure I played Pokémon on an emulator before my mom bought me my first Game Boy. Like many kids, I was so addicted to Pokémon that I’d sit in the back seat of the car after dark, struggling to play the game by the light of passing streetlights.
Let me tell ya, the late 80s/early 90s were a weird time to grow up because everything was changing so fast and nobody knew what they were doing. As a kid, I sort of straddled the divide between pre-Internet and always-connected—between one screen (the TV) and ubiquitous screens. Since computers and gaming systems were new, and cool, and fun, my parents didn’t think twice about letting me play with them. And now, after all those hours of unrestricted screen time, here I am: a relatively well-functioning human being.
Screens + Babies
Charlie is three and a half months old now. He’s very interested in our phones and likes looking at himself via the front-facing camera. There’s a period of time during the day when he refuses to sleep, but is also too cranky/sleepy to play with anything. During that time, he sits on my husband’s lap and watches Fast and Loud, a show about restoring old cars. It’s all just a bunch of blurry blobs to him, yet he’s fascinated by the movement and the bright colors of the hot rods. When the episode is over, he’s usually ready to eat and finally take a nap.
There’s a little baby girl at our church that I watched a few times in the church nursery. She was too shy to interact with the other kids and so I just held her on my lap the whole time while she watched them play. Suddenly she noticed my Apple watch and was transfixed by the honeycomb screen. At a little over a year old, she figured out that if she moved her finger over the surface of the watch, the little app icons would move. That interaction paradigm of touching a screen is incredibly easy for babies to get the hang of. It opens up a world of learning to them that can serve as a good supplement to those all-important hands-on activities.
I’m not worried about managing screen time with Charlie. In the same way my generation remembers cassettes, record players, rotary phones, and finding the answers to our questions at the public library, our kids may remember smartphones and tablets and 5K displays. In other words, the children who grew up with nothing but screens may very well be the ones who lead us into a future without them (or with fewer of them).
Our kids may be the ones who bring augmented reality to the mainstream. They may laugh at the thought of us staring at our phones all day. They may very well straddle a new divide: between ubiquitous flat pieces of glass and…well, whatever’s next. Heck, in some ways, that screen time might be essential in helping them figure out what should be next.