For her first few years of life, my daughter Ella likely thought the television played a single piece of content: the 1993 version of George Balanchine’s Nutcracker, starring as the title role one Macaulay Culkin, who spends the majority of the ballet running around stage and flourishing his arm as the corps of the New York City Ballet actually dances. My mother had mentioned the story to Ella one day and I’d found this free version, by chance, on YouTube. It was charming, and on the scale of Really Bad Things You Can Expose Your Child To, seemed pretty anodyne. As a millennial parent, I was highly attuned to this scale, spending my days wading through a morass of screaming headlines arguing that even a few minutes of screen time might set my child down the asocial, Vitamin D-deprived path of playing Fortnite 22 hours a day and subsisting on Soylent.
But as Ella got older, and started to suspect this magic screen might hold other treasures, I decided to get a handle on how to approach the television. What I learned helped me form a cornerstone of our household’s tech philosophy for life with preschool children.
Firstly, today’s children’s programming is wildly more fast-paced and frenetic than programming of yore. Watch a few minutes of The Powerpuff Girls, which cuts every few seconds and sprouts neon colors that might render your TV visible from outer space, and it feels like snorting four tablespoons of espresso. Compare this to older children’s programs like Mister Rogers, shot by a single camera and featuring a man who speaks at half the speed he puts on his cardigan, and you’ll immediately see the difference. The rapid cuts common in newer children’s shows cue the brain to perk up and refocus attention; scientists call this an “orienting response.” The more cuts in a given minute, the worse it is for your child.
“By design, television programs exploit our orienting response,” write Drs Dimitri Christakis and Frederick Zimmerman in The Elephant in the Living Room, which explores the effect of television on children. With few exceptions, there are more quick cuts now than there were before. For a glimpse at the upshot, take this horrifying finding from one of Christakis’ studies: for every hour of daily television that a child aged 0-3 watches, the child’s risk of developing attention problems consistent with ADHD increases by 9%.
Secondly, one of the activities most important for developing brains is the kind known in academic and medical fields as “serve and return interactions” – and the presence of screens dramatically reduces them. The idea is that the more communication a child experiences and the more she or he is exposed to language, the more resilient and successful and social she or he will go on to be. Television is slightly better for children if you, the parent, “participate” in the experience of watching and engage them in conversation about what they’re watching. But to do so you have to be able to see the screen. Which led me to one of my biggest takeaways: don’t hand your child a personal tablet if you can help it. Watch on as big a screen as you’ve got. Why?
“Kids create a walled-off space,” Dr Jenny Radesky told me about tablet usage in the under-four-foot-tall set. She is one of the lead authors of the 2016 AAP digital media guidelines for young children, and runs a lab at the University of Michigan. In one study she conducted to determine how tablets affect parent-child interactions, she watched as parents were forced to lie melodramatically over the back pillows of couches, neck craned at unnatural angles, as their offspring balled up and edged them out. The smaller the screen, the more tiny elbows come out.
(A separate issue altogether is the idea of handing your child a tablet or smartphone in the hopes that they might learn something from an app. Research shows that children under the age of five have an exceedingly challenging time learning from a 2D screen and translating that into the 3D world without help, so unless you’re right next to your kid, playing along, you should probably give up on the idea that it’s enriching.)
Of course, no one is expecting that parents are going to stop Frozen every few minutes to quiz Junior on the benefits and detriments of being able to turn one’s world into ice. You’re likely putting on the cartoon so you don’t have to engage at all, and there are, at my conservative and highly unscientific estimate, 14 million other op-eds to be written about why American parents need to resort to screen time as they navigate a world without the social support they deserve. But at least if you can see the screen, you might be able to use it as a jumping off point for interaction.
“I know it’s a ludicrous request these days, because [TV is] being used as a babysitter, but I’m constantly asking parents, ‘Please watch with your child,’” Rosemarie Truglio, a legend in the children’s programming space, told me. She’s the senior vice president of curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop, meaning she’s in charge of making sure that one of the most beloved and respected preschool shows is teaching its viewers the right stuff.
“If you do, you could extend the learning,” she said. “Talk about, or act out, the story” after watching. “That’s when they learn. Use it as a springboard.”
So, what’s our family’s television philosophy now?
Minimize screen time. Opt for boredom, and ride out any impending tantrums in the hopes that building a Magna-Tile castle, or getting lost in a make-believe world, may engross our daughters for a bit. When we just don’t have the wherewithal, we put on something nice, slow, and calm. And we put it on a big screen, to increase the chance we can enjoy it together.
During the pandemic, did Ella, now five years old, watch Oklahoma! so many times I’d often come across her innocently singing “I’m just a girl who can’t say no” in the bathtub? Yes. Did I flagellate myself over it? Nope. I just struck up a conversation about Ado Annie, and regional accents, and how she orta brush her teeth before bed.
Sophie Brickman is a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Times and other publications, and the author of Baby, Unplugged: One Mother’s Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age (forthcoming from HarperOne).