Media Moment: Parenting with Media Guilt-Free

Media Moment: Parenting with Media Guilt-Free

Dear Reader,

Welcome to another Media Moment! In this post, David Bickham, a Research Scientist at CMCH, reflects on how his perspective on media effects changed once he became a parent, and evolved even further when his young son was briefly hospitalized. These stories are meant to help create a village square of commiserating and co-celebrating the many ways media intersect with the lives of children. Please comment and even submit your own ‘Moment’ to share with your fellow readers.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®

 Media Moment: Parenting with Media Guilt-Free

I’ve been talking to parents about their children’s media use for almost 2 decades. One thing always comes out in these discussions—guilt. Parents feel guilty about any media use. They preface everything they tell me with “I know I probably shouldn’t be doing this but…”  They look at their child playing on their phone and imagine brain cells dying off millions by the minute. I think some of the existing rigid time-based recommendations contribute to this; while well intentioned, I have always worried that they make parents disengage. So I would say “It’s ok, just be thoughtful about your use.”  I didn’t really get where all the guilt was coming from.

Then I became I parent.

Turns out there’s immeasurable pressure from countless sources to be a good parent. There is a culture of internet comments where we blame and shame parents. As a parent, it’s hard not to feel judged by strangers, other parents, friends, etc. etc. etc. Add the fact that I study media use, and it’s pretty easy to see why I was determined to keep my kid screen-free for as long as possible.

Then my son got sick.

He’s better now, but it was scary.In the hospital with a 1 ½ year old attached to tubes and plugs so he couldn’t move or play much at all, the major challenge was just keeping him calm and occupied. So I perused the app store and found Video Touch, a collection of short animal videos triggered by touching a cartoon animal.

At first I felt the guilt when I let my son play with this. But then I realized this is what intentional use looks like; I had a specific reason for using media with my son and I was being deliberate about what, how, and when it was being used.  I wasn’t worried about any long term consequences, I wasn’t worried about whether or not he was learning, all I wanted was for him to relax, enjoy himself, and forget where he was for a bit.  That’s what my wife and I needed, and media was the absolute best tool to do that.  We could have made it through that time without the iPad. But why wouldn’t we use it?  It’s very hard to be a parent of young children, and using a smartphone or a tablet to help improve your own parenting seems like a no brainer.  And as a researcher, I haven’t seen any conclusive studies demonstrating that short exposure to child-friendly, non-commercial content will have some sort of dramatic, long-term impact on young children.

For years I had a detached distanced perspective on the role of media in the family. Sitting on that hospital bed watching clips of snakes, monkeys, and ducks, put all I know about media effects into perspective.  This is something I control, and it’s something I can model through my own use. This is something right here in my hand; not some unknown frightening enormous force. I can show my son (and his sister) that video can be distracting, educational, enlightening, and bonding all without taking over their lives or dominating their time.

Since then, I’ve let my kids watch those videos and play other apps on planes, in lines, and, at times, when they were melting down – all without a twinge of guilt.

~ David S. Bickham