How do I stop myself from parenting with television?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH
Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Media expert Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, answers your questions about media use.

Last week he answered your questions about bullying on Facebook. Here’s this week’s question:

Q: I am the first to admit that my children use TV, video games, and computers for more than five hours a day. I don’t like this about myself, but I also get them outside, and I guess I feel like I am doing my best at balancing all of this. I know it is easier for me to get my chores done around the house if my toddler is entertained by Noggin or Nick, Jr., and I guess I’ve let their marketing convince me that it’s okay to watch for hours on end because it’s “educational.” Sigh. How do I stop this? How can I go backward from what I am conditioned to do? What can replace these easy “babysitters” so that I can save my mental health? Very intrigued by your research.
Looking for Balance, in Dallastown, PA

A: Dear Looking,

First of all, you have nothing to feel guilty about. Parenting requires you to make constant decisions that balance risks with benefits. Making decisions about whether and how to use media at different points in your child’s life depends on a variety of factors, including how much information you have.

Let’s start with an analogy: In the 1950s, most parents let their kids ride in cars without seat

"Everytime I memorize the chanels, they go and change the damn system."
AAP recommends kids younger than 2 avoid all screen media

 belts, and car seats were not required by law until 1978. As more families purchased more cars, more accidents happened, and a solution for keeping children safe was needed. The parents of the 1950s should not feel guilty for not buckling their kids in; they simply did not have the information or tools at the time. This is similar to the issue of media use. As more media types are created and kids use media more often, information about how to keep kids healthy is spreading, and parents can begin to think differently about their decisions.

Just because there are car accidents doesn’t mean we don’t use cars at all; we simply found ways to make them safer for kids. So let’s do the same with media: What “seat belts” can we use here to keep kids healthy? 

An important one, as you mentioned, is limiting the amount of time your child spends with screen media so that he has more time to do things that are actively good for his growing brain. You are already on your way to making a difference there, simply by paying attention. Toddlers love to be near their parents, doing similar tasks, or feeling like they’re helping. Here are some ideas for activities that can occupy him and still allow you to get your chores done:

  • When you need to make dinner, hand him a box of uncooked macaroni and a big serving spoon. He’ll have a grand old time moving the noodles from one pot to the other (and even sorting out the shapes, if you put in different ones).
  • When you need to pay the bills, sit at the kitchen table with him and give him some playdough or a coloring book.
  • When you need to take a shower, place a dishtub of water on a towel on the bathroom floor and have him wash a baby doll.
  • When you need to fold laundry, have him pick out all the socks and put them in a pile, or “fold” washcloths.

As he grows and becomes more ready to benefit from screen media, here are some ideas for other “seat belts” you can use as well.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician®