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Worrying over kids playing with phones and tablets is just another way to shame mothers

For young kids, screen time — watching television and using phones, computers, and tablets — has become the new secondhand smoke: something harmful that they need to be protected against. And parents who break these rules are severely judged.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screens at all for children under 2 years, plus strict limits for older children. The headlines, often from small studies, are alarming: Screens are making kids less capable of interpreting emotions, making children fat, ruining their sleep, even causing psychological difficulties.

But what about their parents' needs? There's a feminist case for allowing kids some screen time, Alexandra Samuel, a researcher on technology with a PhD in political science, argued in a recent column for JSTOR Daily Magazine: When people panic about exposing children to screens, she wrote, what they're really worrying about is "mothers … putting their own needs alongside, or even ahead of, their kids' needs."

I called Samuel to talk about her research on parenting in the digital age, why limiting kids' time online doesn't always produce the best outcome, and what iPads have in common with disposable diapers and washing machines. Our conversation has been slightly edited for clarity and length.

Libby Nelson: We've definitely seen more concern about kids and screen time over the past few years. What got you interested in this issue, and what made you think that maybe we need to think about it differently?

Alexandra Samuel: I've been doing research on how families manage their kids' screen time for the past couple of years, very much inspired by my own children — with one in particular the screen battle has been really epic.

It's never sat right with me, the panic around kids and screens. In a way it mirrors something I've seen across the board: I think we have a tendency with every aspect of the transition to a more digital universe of feeling like "new" is "worse," and panicking. But screen time in particular has had this really strong characteristic of moral judgment. People are really freaking out about the purported impact screen time is going to have on kids. Some of this there is science behind, but a lot of that science is still very contested.

Candidly, we are conducting a massive experiment. And I say "we" because I'm doing it too. The only way to know what the impact of screens is going to be on kids in the long run is to treat it as a controlled trial for 30 years. And that, obviously, is not how we do things when it comes to kids. So we're in a kind of collective uproar without really any basis for feeling so anxious, and that always makes me suspicious.

LN: And you argue that it's not really about the screens at all — it's about our expectations of women as mothers.

AS: It was so striking when I started looking at other moments where women, and mothers in particular, suddenly had access to technology. The kinds of things we hear people say about screen time sound so much like the kinds of things people said about washing machines.

I just think we really need to take a hard look at what it is that makes us feel so apprehensive, and consider the possibility that this isn't really about the screens after all. It's really about our fears that women are going to be out there in the world where we actually have to see them.

LN: Really, washing machines? What were some of the historical parallels you found in your research?

Anything that makes women's lives easier is suspect, Samuel argues.
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AS: Disposable diapers. There has been a feminist critique of the environmental focus on diapers that basically says, Hey, to not use a disposable diaper, or to do all of the things you're supposed to be doing to save the Earth, we have to be asking (typically) the female parent to basically give over her life to recycling and washing up diapers.

I also found this crazy piece, which I loved, about the history of washing machines being introduced in the US and Canada. It's really interesting to look at that moment of the early mechanization of both the home and the farm. It was always the men's time that was prioritized. And then it wasn't just like, "Oh, we only have enough money for either a tractor or a washing machine" — there also was this sort of environmental critique of the washing machine. We find reasons not to make women's lives easier, frankly.

A lot of that has to do with the fact that as you reduce the footprint of domestic labor, it starts to raise the question about, well, why do we have women confined to the domestic sphere anyhow? And so much of our social structures rests on this very longstanding divide between the public world of men and the private world of women. As a society we find all sorts of ways not to sanction anything that would let women out of that container.

LN: This came out of your own research on this issue, which is a big study you've done of families and screens, where you found that kids whose screen time was limited were also more likely to get in trouble online.

AS: I have been able to survey more than 10,000 North American parents now on how they approach it. The fundamental insight is that there are three really different approaches to kids' use of screens, one of which is what I refer to as the limiter approach, which is that attitude I was critiquing — that screen time is terrible for kids [and] we have to keep kids away from screens as much as possible. So the parents who were limiters, their whole focus is, how do I minimize my kids' use of technology? And that's the dominant attitude among the parents of preschoolers.

Then there's the other extreme of parents who are deferring to their kids' expertise on technology and really see their kids as having more of a sense of what's appropriate than they do. And so they take their cues from their kids and what they see other families doing. Their kids have quite a lot of interaction with technology, and those are parents I call enablers. That's the dominant approach among parents of teens, for reasons that I think are obvious — good luck trying to pull that Xbox out of your 14-year-old's hand.

And then there's this in-the-middle group that I refer to as mentors, who share some of the concerns of the limiters. But instead of managing it by minimizing screen time, they manage it by trying to actively engage with and guide their kids' use of technology. It turns out parents divide up into remarkably even thirds across the three types, but while the enablers skew towards parents of older kids and the limiters skew toward younger kids, mentors are an even third at all ages and stages. Which I think really points to the fact that it's actually a sustainable approach to managing kids' use of technology.

If you're concerned about your kids' screen time, absolutely you should engage with it, but the idea that you shouldn't allow your kid any screen time is unduly onerous not only from the point of view of a child but also the point of view of the mother.

LN: One theme from your piece was that the screen time debate is another way of telling women they're doing it wrong. You write about how parenting is an incredibly challenging thing to do, and we expect caregivers — mostly mothers — to just accept all of it, and not to cut corners or complain.

AS: We don't tend to talk about the parenting war over screen time the way we talk about the battle over vaccination, and the battle over breastfeeding, or the battle over helicopter versus free-range parenting. But the reality is that we have a tendency to play up the divisions among parents and among women, and to turn women on one another, and turn mothers on one another, and it's really counterproductive.

If I told a parent that there was a technology that would allow you to be a calmer parent, which would give you the patience sometimes to never yell at your child, it might even allow you to have some time have a little quiet or get something done at the end of the day, would you want that technology? And everyone says yes, and, you know, it's TV.

And so I think we can give ourselves permission to make use of these tools without feeling like we're horrible, without feeling like it's a big failure. That's enormously liberating, and it's good for both parents and kids.

LN: I think that's what I found striking about your argument — you weren't just arguing that, hey, maybe screens aren't that bad for kids. You were saying, Wait a minute, maybe we should think beyond just what is good and bad for kids in the abstract. How should we be weighing these other variables, like the value of a little quiet time for parents at the end of the day?

AS: As a mother, it's not acceptable to say, Well, maybe you're right, maybe this isn't the best thing for my kid, but you know what, I'm going to lose my mind otherwise, so I'm going to do it. That's totally not legitimated, and certainly it should be.

It should be, and it needs to be. It's been interesting watching some of the comment threads unfold. A number of mothers pointed that it's not a question of what's good for the kid versus what's good for the mom. A mom who's losing her mind is not good for her kids. If providing kids some down time with screens gives them all the margin she needs to be able to care for herself and not have a nervous breakdown, that's a good thing in and of itself.

I think that's one piece — that we just need to recognize that parents and kids are their own family ecosystem, and that we need to encourage parents to take care of themselves.

The other thing is I will often say that the science on the impact of screens is so very open, and the research I did myself suggests actually that this strictly limited approach ends with kids who are more likely to get into trouble online — my own research would suggest that the mentor approach is actually more effective for kids than the limiter approach, at least at older ages.

I think we really need to acknowledge with these conversations that we talk about screen time with this implication of privilege. Like either I'm handing my kid an iPad or we're outside in our beautiful front yard engaging in some fulfilling, creative activity, or planting a garden, or whatever, and that's fantastic for parents to have the leisure and the resources to do that.

But you know for a lot of people, they're working double shifts, they don't have good child care, what's going on around the house may in fact be less wholesome than what's happening on Sesame Street.

And so we really need to evaluate kids' screen time in terms of opportunity costs, and those opportunity costs vary enormously depending on the family and the context. And we need to recognize that sometimes, in every kind of family, having a kid on a screen is better than the kids listening to mom and dad fighting, or is better than the kid having a meltdown and freaking out their sibling or whatever.

When we create these containers for women and shame them out of taking care of themselves, we end up damaging whole families too. If we can apply the feminist lens to this issue, it allows us to create space for people to make the choices that are actually going to work for them.


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