controversial topic: children & media

Once upon a time I majored in Mass-Communications. Now I'm momma bear to two littles (and hopefully more one day). With these two things in mind, one could say my kid's interactions with media matter to me. A lot. Right now it's somewhat irrelevant, but I know in our world it's bound to be an important parenting issue, so I've already given a great deal of thought already. Here's where we're at.


Firstly, I am aware of the negatives when it comes to children and media. Generous amounts of research has shown that children shouldn't be exposed to television before age two. Aside from the uncomfortable power that branding and advertising can have on children, I'm aware that media (TV specifically) is actually suggested to be harmful to brain development.  It's not just a "give them more fresh air" argument, it's actually deeper than that. But what about "educational" television? Even these programs (think Baby Einstein, which has now been discredited) have no benefit to children before age two.

But what about the positives to a little screen time? Most toddlers I know of who watch television do so in key scenarios - it's not a free for all. It's generally when dad isn't yet home from work, mom is trying to get dinner on the go, and the children's biological clock tells them it's 4pm, so time to loose their minds. Putting on a 20 minute show for the kids in this case seems logical and fine to me, provided it's not the exclusive answer to a tantrum or busyness. And you know what? I almost wish it could work in our home.

See, in our house, so far Lily's not very into TV. Like, at all.
I'm not comfortable exposing Oli to screen time yet, so apart from sitting on my lap while I read blogs occasionally, he hasn't had the chance to decide if he likes TV or doesn't. Lily has, and I'd say she's not a huge fan. Which is probably great. Many a mom have congratulated me on this "accomplishment" and assured me that we're better off. Kids, after all, get easily addicted to TV. But secretly (now, not so secretly), I wish Lily would feign interest in TV. I'd love to have an assured 20 minute break at the 4pm Bonkers Hour. I'd love knowing if I just popped in a video (parent approved, of course), that she would chill out for a few minutes. But she watches TV for no more than 2 minutes before walking away, so we just don't bother.

Lately, here in New York, where we have very few toys and play dates, I've been trying to introduce TV again. In very short segments (between 2 and 10 minutes) I've showed Lily some really cute programs on YouTube. (1) Octonauts (2) Small Potatoes (3) Barefoot Books

And I don't feel the least bit guilty about it. While I've read the research suggesting children under age two not be exposed to media, I'm OK with letting Lily (who is 2) have up to 20 minutes/day of screen time, provided that it's not every day and that it's still referred to as a treat.

Here's a few guidelines I'm putting in place now in hopes of not creating an addicted kiddo, but still feeling the freedom to allow screens in our kid's lives:
  • Set healthy examples for our kids. On average, Brad and me watch less than 30 minutes a day of television, so there's no reason they should think it's normal to watch any more than that. We enjoy media (movies, hockey, The Olympics) but it's not a routine or something that consumes us. I imagine our kid's will have a far harder time becoming addicted to TV if we aren't watching it often.
  • Keep screens limited. I'm all for iPhones - I wish I had one! But I'm aware that it's a screen and often confused as a kid's toy.  Our phones, computers, and electronics are off limits for the kids (in large part, because Lily broke my old cell phone, but also to limit their exposure). Also, we have one medium sized TV and it's never on unless we're watching something (not just background noise).
  • Be cautious of advertisements. Brands are targeting children as young as Lily and Oli's age. That is terrifying! But real. So we play music from our iPods instead of listening to car radio and I often turn the TV to mute when commercials come on. I know I can't shield them forever, but it's just unhelpful and unnecessary at their age.
  • Cut back if necessary. This was mentioned in the Parenting Talks from The Village Church that I've frequently recommended. The parents giving the talk suggested that if TV became an expectation instead of a treat, their kids were consuming too much. I like this and though it's irrelevant to me now (Lily hardly watches an episode of Small Potatoes), I've taken it to heart for later.
  • Enjoy moderately. Like I said, we enjoy media. We love watching the hockey game and a good movie - and we hope to share these media experiences with our kids some day! We embrace it as a fun family activity and value the process of enjoying media together as long as it's never our only option for fun or relaxation. 
That pretty much sums up our current thoughts on the issue, and what's working for us as parents. I'd love to hear from you on the issue!

What's working for you when it comes to your kids and media? 
What TV or movies do your kids enjoy? (I'd love suggestions!)
What are your thoughts on children and screen time?


  1. On Sat I wasn't feeling well so Andrew was playing with Coral all afternoon. After we put her to bed he said he was super impressed that I don't turn cartoons on for Coral more then I do, because it would be such an easy way to entertain her. We usually only let her watch something when she first wakes up, or if Im making her lunch and shes being a monkey (I struggle more with lunch time, supper time she always wants to be in the kitchen helping). That being said we are really picky about what she watches. We have found very few shows that we will allow her to watch. Most cartoons on tv have kids that whine to get their way, or are bossy, or try to defy their parents. Not something that we want her to learn. When she was Lilys age she watched a lot of Barney. Kind of annoying for us, but it actually taught her a lot (singing, imagination). And now the only thing she really watches is Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. We have actually found that the very little tv she watches has helped her imagination SO much. But again, all in moderation right :)

    1. if I could get Lily to actually sit down and watch a show I would totally use it when I was sick or when I was in my 3rd trimester with Oli - those are times I'm OK with a little more TV because if you can't afford a Nanny, you don't get a sick day! I'm impressed too that you didn't! I agree with you - it's not just sex and drugs that us parents should be aware of - there are a lot of prevailing attitudes on kid's TV that I don't want to expose my kids to. The "Bratty kid" has become typecast in every show, it seems!

  2. Pen watches TV :S I always said NEVER before age 2, but..she watches if I'm watching. Once we move we won't have cable though so the TV will barely be on, so I don't feel so bad.

    1. not having cable doesn't mean no TV though! We don't have cable either, but with rabbit ears we get most channels we want anyhow - CBC (hockey), CTV (grey's), Global (Parenthood) - for free! I used to watch morning television when Lily was a baby but like you said, if you're watching, so are they, which made me stop watching. Was good for me, but it's not something I think everyone should do - just a personal conviction about the content (commercials, TV where people are arguing or interrupting each other aka all morning TV!)

  3. This is a great post Emily! We've always limited t.v. time and our kids are okay with it. They are allowed an hour a day (30 minutes in the am and 30 minutes in the afternoon). We also do not have video games or any of the early childhood gaming stuff (like v-tech etc). We felt like those items were just grooming children to become addicted to video games when they got older.
    We don't have cable t.v. so that helps in limiting whats available in the first place (PBS Kids, and occasionally they watch a show on Play House Disney on the computer).

    It's nice that our kids play outside, color, draw, read, play pretend etc. and even keep themselves occupied in the car on trips without immediately begging for t.v. time.

    1. Thanks Nikki! I should have added video games, but since our kids are SO young it's just irrelevant right now. But, like you, we have zero gaming in our house. My husband enjoys it time to time and once in a while he'll spend an evening with his buddies enjoying beer and video games, but he's glad (and so am I!) that we don't own any - it takes away the temptation to waste hours upon hours on them! And I think you're right - what people do as children often influences them as adults. I don't want my kids to expect or worse, "need" TV or video games to have fun, so I limit or avoid them altogether now :)

  4. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, especially when it comes to my 3-year-old. All we're ever told is that TV/video games are bad, bad, bad and rots their brains. But the thing is, our generation as parents are in whole new territory. Technology is a HUGE part of life now and I feel like it's important for them to learn about it. Personally, my only issue is with advertisements, so I go to great lengths to minimize their exposure to them. But I'm done feeling guilty about TV and games. Great post!

    1. good point Kylie - Up until recently toys weren't really relevant to technology today. Think rotary phones instead of cell phones for kids haha! Lily has a toy cell phone and at first it seemed "a bit much" but then we realized, hey, we ONLY use cell phones. This is our world today! It's not wrong, it's current.

  5. Anonymous25.9.12

    For the record, when I was 10 I would come home from school, plop myself on the couch and watch endless episodes of Saved by the Bell. Saturday mornings were all about cartoons. Sundays we would watch Littlest Hobo. Or Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I've also turned out to be a pretty normal functioning member of society. I run 5 K 3 times a week, eat healthy foods and don't watch reality shows. Hurrah :)

    So while I think it's important that we limit screens for kids I don't think it's because they're all going to turn into crazy addicts. It's because there's a big wide world out there to enjoy and we need to use our time wisely in honour to God.

    So, I have 3 boys aged 9-12 and we (generally) allow zero screen time during the week. Sure there's the odd night we'll watch a movie or have a hockey game on but it's not the norm. Never has been simply because there is too much else to do! There are neighbourhood kids to play with and sport activities after school and books to read, oh so many books to read!

    Saturday morning is fair game. It's their time to do it up right! Cartoons, video games, etc. It's really just our ploy to get to sleep in a bit ;)

    We also institute a "no screen september" rule as they tend to play and watch a bit more in the summertime than usual and so in order to get back into the routine of school we just say no. Actually, they don't even ask anymore - they just know!

    I think the most important thing that we teach our kids is not that screens are bad. They are, and will be a part of the majority of their life. What they need to know is that every time they're expected to sit still for 5 minutes they shouldn't have to have a screen to do it. And every day that it's rainy does not require a screen. And when there are people leaving your house, you need to pull yourself away from the screen and go and say goodbye. Because there is more to life than that! And relationships are always more important than screens. And you'll miss a lot of living if your head is always down in something.

    Of course, in our generation of checking our iphones every 2 seconds its most important that we model this for them. It's how they learn the most :)

    1. me too Rhonda, to the tee! but looking back to my childhood, I was addicted to TV (more or less) in many ways. When we'd travel to Florida as a family I'd want to stay inside and watch the American channels that we didn't get at home (Nickelodeon and later, MTV) instead of enjoying the beach. It was our holiday so my parents let me (though normally I didn't get to watch AS much) and I was a couch potato and missed out on a lot of fun.

      I'm mostly curious right now about the effect of screens on babies under age two, as 9-12 year olds watching occasional TV is pretty common place and not something I'm concerned about. Wondering if limiting it heavily now will result in less desire later (not banning it, as that might make it a forbidden fruit kind of thing). It's all speculation and curiosity right now, and like you said, we watched a TON and ended up fine, but I do wonder about cause and effect often :)

  6. Oh gosh, we totally watch more than 30 mins a day on average these days. I need to start reading again. Surprisingly, we don't follow any of the shows we used to online - we only watch Netflix and listen to CBC Radio 2 which, in both case, means zero ads. Hopefully we'll have watched everything good on netflix before we have kids.

  7. Totally relate to needing to let young kids watch TV/videos when away from home...we find the same thing when traveling, if we haven't brought any toys & the places we're staying/going aren't childproofed, we need to let him watch videos on our iPad or phones to keep him from breaking stuff or making a HUGE mess when we need to divert our attention away from him like when cooking, showering, etc...S isn't used to watching TV (we don't have one) & only has the attention span to watch his ultimate favourite "Fireman Sam" for more than a few minutes.

    Oh, and videos of himself on our phones. He has becoming increasingly interested in "texting" lately. He knows the ring tone that my phone makes when I receive a text message and exclaims "Oh, TEXT!" Every time he sees my phone, he begs to have it to call or text someone. (To the point that I can't talk on the phone in front of him cause its too distracting/I can't hear cause he's whining so much). I am thinking that I may need to start hiding my phone from his sight a bit more as its the screen I use most, therefore, the screen he is exposed to the most. Computer only comes out at night when he's in bed & I use my phone for everything during the day: texting, emails, phone, browsing/searching, maps, etc...

  8. Leigh26.9.12

    I enjoyed reading your post. Being a nanny/part-time nanny to 6 families over the past year and a half, I've had a chance to see different families employing a wide range of rules in regards to TV (the most lenient family allowed the kids to watch TV whenever they wanted and it was seen as a right, not a privilege. The strictest family (strict in regards to TV rules) lets the kids watch TV NO MORE than 30 minutes a day. One child (a 2 year old only child) has never seen a TV show in her life and her focus and imagination are incredible. The kids who hardly watch TV or don't watch at all are the 4 kids out my 14 that have the biggest imaginations and can "play pretend" for hours on end without getting in their mom's way.

    I agreed with most of the things you wrote, but I wanted to add one thing that I think is really important. None of the parents I work for do this, but my mom did it for us. It annoyed me to no end (!) but I do think it good and lasting effects on me. --> Research has shown that it is a great idea, if kids are going to watch TV, for a parent to WATCH WITH THEM, discuss the show with them, and point out not only the characters' negative behaviour, but also the positive things that the characters do/say. It gets the kids thinking (even if only at an unconscious level) about how what they're watching on the screen translates into real life.

    1. I never thought we were in the "strict" category with out kids but I guess comparing to the families you've worked for, we would be THAT fam that only allows 30 min a day (and really it's more like 10-20 min!). Funny, I never set out to be strict, it's just what's felt right and what we've seen work well (plus Lily isn't big into it).

      I appreciate you sharing about the kid's imaginations that don't watch TV! Thank you! So often I hear how TV inspires the imagination and it almost temps me to want to expose my kids to more, but Lily is certainly the type to play on her own for a long time and can do a great deal independently which maybe comes from lack of TV? Who knows!

      Also, I LOVE your idea about watching with your kids. I figured I'd do this when my kid's were older and content was more questionable/bad but why not start now? Thanks for the tip!

  9. Great post and topic to talk about! When Hannah was born I had a couple of people strictly warn me about how Hannah viewing any screen (including the computer for skype) would burn up brain cells and she would loose her brain potential. Here's the thing, in studying infant development in my program, I do not buy that one, but I do believe that it can be damaging to their development. What it comes down to in my mind is what they look at (programs that are too fast moving compared to real life are beyond overwhelming for babies who are learning something new all the time and can't process it fast enough, also even having a violent movie on while our baby slept was not okay for me, because the loud scary noises are not something she needs to hear that could create fears and nightmares), and how much they watch it. Coupled with other things you do with your kids impacts it as well in my mind.

    I know its not great for kids under 2 to watch TV. I have a feeling though that a part of this new huge push against it is because of the problem that has become larger now where people have their TV as their nanny for the kids almost all day long without introducing them to movement, outdoors, educational stuff, books, etc. However, with Hannah being under 2 still she has had her fair share of media. She loves to text family and tell me what she writes (and they love it), we skype all the time because its the only way most of the year family sees her (although she is not by any means glued to the screen, she pops in and out as she plays!), and some movies and shows.

    When I pick what she watches, I think of - is it normal pace, is it predictable for her? Is it age appropriate? Is it educational?

    For Hannah watching youtube videos of animal sounds, shapes and the alphebet are her favourites! The one show she can sit down and watch the longest and LOVES is Elmo's world. What I like about it is it is geared towards younger kids, it is predictable (each episode is set up the exact same way. Hannah always knows when the part in asking the baby comes and gets excited every time), it is educational - learning about teeth, hands, animals, etc and its not jam packed to overwhelm a little mind.

    What I enjoy is having a video on hand from the library of it to leave for a babysitter (especially if they have a little baby which many do these days) to give then those 17 minutes of Hannah being entertained while they can do other things (like put their little one down without Hannah distracting). The only other times she really watches is much is if she is sick and cant keep her head up, but not tired enough to sleep (we all need those chill on the couch times when we are sick) or if I am really stuck and need her to (which is not often).

    To be honest, Hannah does not stay entertained watching TV for long, which I am grateful and would never push it on her. That said when I had the miscarriage and lost so much blood/hemoglobin was drastically low, I could barely function/give her much in a day, we watched A LOT of movies. I don't know how she watched so much because usually she doesn't. That said once I was feeling better she did expect it which I had to nip in the bud. I really needed that during that time and reminded myself it was for a small season and was not going to ruin her and it didn't.

    Oh the other ideas I have tried with Hannah is Berenstien bears because they are cute and have good morals, but she doesn't stay watching that one as much and we got out a Live Veggies Tales sign a long dvd from the library she really loved. She loved the music and getting up and dancing (when she didn't feel too sick) and I liked hearing the old songs I could sing along too!