Dr. GeekMom or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Screens

GeekMom TV and Movies
My daughter and her screen of choice, the iPad.

I don’t know if it’s just my corner of Manhattan, but more and more I find myself in conversations with parents who have thrown out their TV, won’t allow video games into their house, or think that handheld gadgets are the downfall of civilization. Here on GeekMom, Jessamyn made a recommendation to try a week – or a decade – without the tube, Kay declared recess from screen time, and Kathy wrote about a family that totally pulled the plug on technology.

I don’t begrudge any parent for doing what feels right for her family, but I do think families that unplug are missing out on amazing content, and the rewards that content can bring. I have a natural bias in this area because I work in children’s media and I know a bunch of really talented people who truly want to make great shows and games for kids.

I’m not without my moments of unplugging. When my daughter was born, I went from being someone who had the TV on constantly to a mom who was trying to follow to the letter the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of no TV until age 2. But something happened at 18 months. A pre-Nickelodeon pilot of a show called Yo Gabba Gabba was floating around town, and when I saw it I absolutely loved it and couldn’t wait to see what my little girl would think. I loved having her on my lap watching “There’s a Party in My Tummy” over and over again.

But I stressed about it. I endured nasty looks from other parents who couldn’t believe I’d let my baby watch TV. Then I started showing her computer games. Then I got an iPhone which opened up a whole new world of gaming. Then a Wii. And a Nintendo DS. And a Leapster Explorer. And an iPad. I just did a quick count and when all are present and accounted for, we have 11 screens in a one-bedroom apartment on which to consume media. I’ve stopped worrying, though, because now that my daughter is 5 and very savvy on all of these devices, I’ve noticed some really amazing things.

  • Characters really want to teach ABCs and 123s. Flip on any show, game, or website aimed at a preschool market, and you’ll see characters trying to teach your kid the alphabet, math, or Spanish. In many of these cases, the creators have brought in educational consultants, tried to align with education standards, and some have even done efficacy testing to show that kids can actually learn using media.
  • Media can inspire new interests. Thanks in large part to PBS, my daughter calls herself a scientist, and has a genuine interest in doing science experiments at home. It started with Sid the Science Kid. Then we watched nothing but Dinosaur Train for months on end, and now she’s shown an interest in SciGirls.
  • Time spent on the computer is often time spent reading. My daughter’s first sight words came from the land of interface: new, play, game, continue, etc. We have some games that are reading-dependent and I can’t always play with her, and I’ve see how much this motivates her to learn to read. Older kids do tons of reading online, but it often doesn’t get counted as such because it’s not in book form.
  • Good video games encourage strategy and perseverance. My daughter and I are hooked on Plants vs. Zombies. Sometimes we play together and talk about different plant strategies to defeat the zombies, but one day she pushed me aside saying that she really wanted to figure it out for herself. I watched her from afar as she tried different things to see what would work. It was very scientific.
  • It’s easy to be ad-free. Many anti-TV parents point at advertising or the inappropriateness of the news as reasons to keep kids away from TV. We live in a time where it couldn’t be easier to control what your kids see. We gave up our cable box, but in a typical week we’ll watch DVDs, watch recorded shows which are either commercial free or can skip commercials, stream Netflix to the iPad or TV, download shows from iTunes, watch shows or YouTube on the computer, and play games on any one of our screens.
  • It’s good to be entertained. I don’t mind a bit anymore when we bag the educational shows in favor of some lighter fare. I’ve recently come to appreciate just how funny and surreal SpongeBob is, and watching my little girl giggle uncontrollably while watching it seems like a wonderful milestone in her sense of humor. And, we watch Phineas and Ferb as a family, which has some of the best comedy writing on television.

I realize I’m a bit atypical in how much I’m interested in watching kids shows, but one of the best things that we can do is watch and play this stuff with our kids. The conversations that can come from co-viewing or co-playing are not only enjoyable, but they can add a whole new level of thinking and learning.

The baby likes the iPad, too. This was when I was able to use Koi Pond to put him to sleep.

My screen-loving daughter is a fluent reader, she’s creative, and she has a hilarious sense of humor. We also have a baby in the house, and trying to abide the recommendation for no screen time this time around is an exercise in futility. We don’t plunk him down on the couch to watch TV, but we also don’t keep it off when he’s in the same room. And you know what? Like his sister, I know he’s going to be just fine. I can’t wait to watch Yo Gabba Gabba with him.

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9 thoughts on “Dr. GeekMom or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Screens

  1. Amy…lovelovelove this post. I, too, can respect when people go tv free, but we have gotten a lot of good out of media at our house.

    Your points are right on. There is great stuff out there and just because it’s not in a book form, doesn’t mean it’s bad.

    There are great youtube channels, with sesame street songs on every life learning theme imaginable, that we watch with my toddler neighbor when she comes over. Its great interaction time with her. It makes me wish I’d had it when my kids were younger. (imagine, MORE media, not less!)

    My older kids now watch a lot of the history channel, Discovery channel and Discovery Health. Many family discussions have come out of those shows.

    I’m especially thankful that we’ve watched many HGTV shows, when all four of my kids knew what the words ‘stage the house’ and resale value’ meant, when daddy came home with news of a move. 🙂

    And thanks for pointing out the value of some fun stuff too. We love sponge bob and phineas and ferb and I dont mind sitting down to watch it with them. Sharing laughs as a family is just as important as learning new things every day.

    (the kids can always count on my to yell out, from the kitchen, “Mommmm! Phineas and Ferb are making a title sequence again!” at just the right moment!)

    Great post. Thanks for putting it together and writing what I’ve always felt about media in our house.


  2. I love PBS Kids so much! It pretty much IS the only TV I ever have on in my house. (And I think Word Girl is one of the funniest shows on TV period, myself). Funny you mention the ad-free thing– what with PBS and DVDs (and VHS), my son now gets really confused and annoyed (nearly to tantrum-point) by commercials if he’s ever watching anything that has them!

    And I do think it’s funny the point we stress Books are Good and Screens are Bad. If the point of reading books is reading practice, you can get that from computers and games too. If the point of reading books is Quality, you can get that from shows and such too (as well as Lack Thereof from books, occasionally). If the point of Cutting Down on Screentime is Making Time for Exercise, books aren’t helping you there, either (although believe me, as a young bookworm, I TRIED to justify my lack of exercise with “But I’m NOT a couch potato! Books are GOOD for you! Everyone says so!” –and look what shape I’m in today). So everything in moderation. It always seems to come back to that.

  3. One thing I majorly disagree with you about…I HATE YO GABBA GABBA!

    Other than that though, I enjoyed your post. I worry my 7 and 4yo sons have too much screen time, and I do try to limit it. But I think the screen time they do get is beneficial and I’m glad they are getting tech savvy and learning the stuff they are from the screens.

    I still need to do a better job balancing book time, playtime and screen time. But thanks for the post!

  4. Agreed!

    I think the most important thing about screentime is that it is intentional. It isn’t good to just plunk your toddler down in front of the television for 8 hours a day, but I fail to see the harm in watching something on purpose. I don’t even see a problem with plunking your kid down in front of the Disney Channel for a couple hours on occasion so you can take some time to get something important done or even just to take a mental health break.

    My sister seems to think that technology in itself is a bad thing. It is okay to read a paperback, but not to read the same book on the Kindle. Come on!

  5. @Rebecca – Intention is so right. Plus, in our house, if there’s a new show we want to check out, I either prescreen it or we watch it together and talk afterwards about what was good or bad about the show.

    @Jen – So funny, Yo Gabba Gabba really seems to be one of those love it or hate it shows.

  6. I love the title of the post more than anything 😉

    We also did the no TV until 2 with our son. Then our daughter was born and that went out the window. But agreed that being able to offer great shows (like Sid or Sesame Street or Word World) through Netflix streaming through our TiVo box makes it so much easier to have “appropriate” screen time instead of crap.

    Another great show to check out from PBS in Austin — The Biscuit Brothers!

  7. I also think this is an outstanding post. My husband and I were torn on the amounts of media they should be exposed to, but there was no doubt we could hide them from it.

    My sons are a little older (6 & 8) and they’re now being faced with peer pressure of what kinds of MP3 player(s) they own and/or whether they even have cell phones of their own! A whole new bag of chips!

    For the record: my boys don’t own an MP3 player, mainly because they don’t seem to listen to tunes at all. They just haven’t asked for one. But they do get to brag to their friends that they have an iPhone of their own: my 1st generation one from 2008 that doesn’t have a SIM card 🙂

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