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A week after I finished dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on the final manuscript for Baby, Unplugged: One Mother’s Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age, Governor Cuomo locked down New York City because of some virus that would soon have me Lysoling my vegetables—or just about. The book, conceived of during the first year of my oldest daughter’s life, covers what parenting and kid-related technology is helpful, which should be shoved in the freezer, and how I, as a modern mother, should rationally navigate the morass that is Parenting in the Digital Age. Great timing, I thought, as I pinned my then-three-year-old daughter down for dystopian mornings of Zoom preschool, then careened around our compact apartment like a pinball until bedtime.
In between the doomscrolling, the obsessive cleaning, the crack-of-dawn scoots through the park, I worried that all the research I’d done about how to come up with a healthy digital diet for my young family would be best doused in Lysol and set aflame in a trash can out on the street. And yet, as our new reality settled in, I was relieved to find that what I’d learned through my years of researching the book remained as true post-pandemic as it did pre.
To cut to the chase: Yes, my daughters watched Frozen fourteen million times. No, my family doesn’t wind down the days sewing quilts and reciting Chaucer out loud, like some modern version of Laura Ingalls Wilder out on the prairie. We are very much plugged-in. Just, I like to think, plugged in with some research-backed parameters.
Here are five simple takeaways that might help as you peek your head up from under the last few years, take a deep breath, and draw up your own family’s tech rules:
Watch with your child
It’s something Rosemarie Truglio, head curriculum authority at Sesame Street and one of the most beloved and trusted gurus of preschool programming, told me. “If you do, you could extend the learning,” she said. “Talk about, or act out the story you just saw afterwards, and that’s where they learn. Use it as a springboard.” In practice, this boils down to something quite simple: make sure whatever you put on for your child is something you might want to watch, too, or at least have on in the background. And does it have to be “enriching”? Not always. During one few month stretch, my daughter and I would watch the Muppets “Mahna mahna” skit together on repeat, cackling as those bovine-esque singers bopped their way around the screen. It was a shared experience, and we both loved it—which was the key.
As a baseline, the fewer cuts in a given show, the better
Ok, I hear you saying, but the point of putting my kid in front of a screen is so that I don’t have to participate, so I can make dinner, or do the laundry, or work, or just stare off into the middle distance for a while. In that case, a few researchers and developmental psychologists pointed me to a simple guideline of how to evaluate children’s programming, should you need to plop them in front of a show for a while on their own: the fewer quick cuts, the better. On one side of the spectrum, you have Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which is shot in real time, with one camera. Fred talks reeeeeallly slowly. On the other, you have shows that rival an AC/DC concert in terms of crazy, frantic energy. Quick cuts exploit what is known as the brain’s orienting response, and the more cuts it sees, the more jangled it will become. What you want is for your child to be able to transition from watching the screen to the real world, without needing constant input to remain engaged. Quieter shows, like Blue’s Clues and You!, Sesame Street, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, all hew to this principle.
Video chatting is totally fine
FaceTime and other video chatting applications get the stamp of approval from the American Academy of Pediatrics, for children of any age. (This is a revise of earlier guidelines that stated that children under the age of two should receive absolutely no screen time whatsoever.) Is it the same as having a conversation with Grandma and Grandpa in the room? Absolutely not. But children have been shown to gain, verbally, over video chatting, and make strides socially, too. So if you need to set your child up in front of a screen for a while, try to rope someone else into chatting with them. During the pandemic, my parents read my children stories every day, even though they were quarantining in their apartment eight blocks away. It wasn’t the same as sitting in their lap, but it was a very, very good substitute. And for me, a guiltless one.
Do your homework, and play the apps yourself
If you’d like to occupy them for some amount of time with an app, one thing is key: confirm that chubby toddler fingers can actually manipulate whatever they want to manipulate. Certain app developers, like the child development and learning experts at Noggin, do the work to make sure the apps are designed with this in mind, so control panels aren’t unwittingly dragged up from the bottom of the screen and the like. And please make sure that there aren’t embedded “in-app purchases,” that both gamify the experience—not good for young children, who benefit most from open-ended play, whether that be on the playground or the screen—and manipulate young players in all sorts of questionable ways.
Everything in moderation
This, one lauded pediatrician told me, was “a completely scientifically valid statement.” Make sure your kid runs around outside. Make sure she plays with blocks, or draws, or plays pretend, or is simply bored a little bit. (Boredom is ok! It helps children learn how to be self-reliant, and creative, and calm.) You can’t ever really over index on reading to your child, but otherwise, everything in moderation. That includes screens, apps, broccoli, toothpaste, all of it.
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