I avoid the the phrase screen time like the plague. I can’t fully articulate why it irks me so much, but I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that it’s so often used in the context of anxiety. We’re made to feel fearful of too much screen time, or the wrong kind of screen time, or the proper use of screen time. It feels like something that you can mess up. Or should feel badly about. An indication of a moral failing, or else a lack of imagination.
Is there such a thing as too much screen time? Sure. If screen time comes at the expense of all other kinds of activities then lots of signs point to yes. But I also think it’s possible to embrace digital media, and movies in particular, in a way that involves more fun and less hand-wringing. We’ve made choices around screen time that work for our family, but no doubt there are a million ways this could look depending on personal preferences, or circumstances, or both.
Our kids don’t spend a whole lot of time looking at screens, or, as we call it, watching movies, but as winter wanes on and the ground remains frozen solid, it’s nice to have a quiet indoor activity we can embrace as a family. (And on a day when a parent needs to dash off a few emails and schools are closed and the slush is piled high, a movie is a nice way to snag a bit of quiet time, too.)
We were admittedly a little late to the game. Our first forays into the world of movies were with animated shorts, mostly just a handful of minutes long. Faye watched her first of these when she was 3 and a few months and we had a return flight from the West Coast and an eight-month-old little brother to contend with. For Silas, an older sister eager to share movies has meant we’ve more nearly followed along with the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics, avoiding screen time altogether until just two.
Aside from our delayed start (which was really a rule for the parents, and not the kids) we don’t have any hard and fast rules or time limits around movie watching. We provide our kids with a smallish selection of movies and programs they can choose from that are 1) are not terribly painful for their parents or caregivers to also watch and 2) generally offer a simple, age-appropriate message that complements our family values. (Easier said than done, but not impossible!) From our kids’ perspective, I’m hopeful that we’ve managed to put screen time, for lack of a better word, on par with any other kind of activity that’s joyful and passes the time. Even if we try to prioritize their time away from the screen, I try to avoid transmitting this sense of hierarchy to my kids. I hope they see watching movies as a nice way to pass the time, same as reading books, or playing outside, or baking a cake. Like any of these other activities, watching a movie isn’t always available at precisely the moment when a kid would like it to be, or for how long they’d like it, but that’s okay.
We don’t have a TV in our apartment, so the kids generally watch movies on the eight-year-old iPad of James’s that miraculously still works. We often prop it on their dresser shelves so they can cozy up on Faye’s bed, couch-style, and watch it with a bit of distance.
In terms of the movies themselves, we’ve had lots of luck with sweet animated shorts and have introduced a few feature-length classics to Faye, like Mary Poppins and Sound of Music (even though she’s yet to make it through to the end). We generally avoid shows with trademarked characters, with the exception of a few old Sesame Street skits. It’s a whole other conversation, perhaps, but I’m exhausted by the way that our consumer culture markets goods to young kids and so I try to just avoid that stuff altogether. (Let it be known that all of these trademarked characters are not at all lost on Faye. When she spots them around the city, she’s very eager to point out all things Frozen or PawPatrol, despite never having watched either.) So far we’ve found essentially all Disney feature-length films to be too intense age-wise. Faye saw Coco in the theatre when it came out and she was only 3.5, and the first half of Moana on a plane ride, but has since declared both too scary for any reasonable person to dare watch.
In case it’s helpful for anyone else, here’s a shortlist of the movies we’ve enjoyed watching with young kiddos:
Less Short Shorts
What about all of you? Favorite movies to watch with little ones? Different approaches in your family? We’re especially on the lookout for sweet movies featuring kids of color and LGBTQI families, in case anyone has a good recommendation.
PS. Last month we went to the annual BAM Kid’s Film Festival, which was such a delightful way to spend a winter’s afternoon and such a great introduction to movies. Highly recommend to anyone local! (Ditto checking out your local indie theater for any great kids’ programming.)