Lions and Tigers and Screens, Oh My! Are TVs, Tablets, and Cell Phones Really So Bad?

“Everyone needs to calm the f*ck down about screens and focus on what really matters.”

Full disclosure. Our family would probably be considered a “TV family”. What do I mean by that? Well, the TV is almost always on, regardless of whether we’re actively paying attention to it. I tried to think back to my own childhood and whether I remember TV always being on, but I have a horrible memory. So, I asked my Mom. She remembers mostly having music playing in the house and not so much the TV. She also said that back then they didn’t have entire channels dedicated entirely to children’s TV shows. She remembered that Sesame Street was on at 10am. We watched that, and sometimes Barney in the afternoon. What the hell happened to Barney!?  I do remember, as an older child, always being outside with friends, literally until our parents were screaming at us to come in. We were building forts, playing basketball, drawing on the road with chalk, attempting gymnastics in the backyard, choreographing dance routines, picking blueberries in the backyard (Northern Ontario stuff), and on and on. Do kids still do this kind of shit? I really hope so.

In my adult years, I think I’ve used the TV as a kind of white noise. I’ve never been one to study or do homework in silence. Sometimes I play music, but most often I have the TV on. I could have the TV on for hours and if you asked me to tell you one storyline or repeat some dialogue from what had been on, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. My husband and I also eat dinner with the TV on. Is that just the most horrific thing you’ve ever heard, or do you do the same? I feel like TV habits are kind of a weird thing to talk about. You feel as if you’re going to be judged, and you probably will be. Unless you don’t watch TV, then I’m sure you’d be totally fine telling everyone how you and your husband light candles and play smooth jazz as you stare into each others eyes and have a deep meaningful conversation over dinner every evening.

“I feel like TV habits are kind of a weird thing to talk about. You feel as if you’re going to be judged. And, you probably will be.”

Unless you live under a rock, you know that screens are BAD! Especially for children. Right? Some media and parenting resources make screens out to be the legit antichrist of childhood. They make kids obese and stupid and riddled with attention deficit disorders. Right? **Can you pick up on the sarcasm in the text?** Back in the day, screens used to mean TV but today a screen can be a TV, iPad, iPhone, laptop, etc. As I wrote that I realized that iPads and iPhones are specifically Apple products, so let’s say “tablets” and “cellphones”. Screens are one thing I never did any research on prior to having Milo. I didn’t really have any opinions about screens and children, but I knew I was supposed to be anti-screen. I had heard of parents being completely against screens and not allowing the TV to be on in the house. Yikes! I knew that wouldn’t be us.

When Milo was a few months old I could tell that he noticed the TV. I thought it was cute when he’d look at it. One day we put on Paw Patrol and he loved it! I know he did because he stared at the TV anytime it was on. I imagine for babies, all the colours and movement and fun voices are entertaining. Compared to the black and white baby “art cards” I used to put in front of him all day, I’m sure the TV was mind blowing. Some evenings, when he would be inconsolable (teething or gas, I’m sure), we would snuggle him in our bed and put Paw Patrol on (yes, we have a TV in our room… we’re TV people… back off!). We have also been known to play Paw Patrol on one of our cell phones at a restaurant if he’s being a fuss-pot and we want to quickly try and finish our meal. “You what? OMG, someone call the screen police!” I started to realize that I felt guilty about letting him (or encouraging him to) watch Paw Patrol. It’s not your fault Chase & Ryder. It’s the freakin’ pressure from the media and knowing people are probably looking at us horrified that our 10 month old is looking at a SCREEN! We also FaceTime family members almost daily. But, according to some research out there, FaceTime doesn’t count. I guess it has something to do with interacting with another human or something. Which leads me to my next stream of thoughts.

Is it really that screens are bad, OR, is it that when a child is immersed in a screen for hours a day, they are not engaging in other activities. For example, socializing with peers, interacting with parents, playing with toys, being physically active, reading books, etc. Current recommendations are no more than one hour per day of “high-quality educational programming”. Whatever that means. When I googled “high-quality educational children’s TV shows” I got results like Sesame Street, and Daniel Tiger, just so you have an idea of what shows they’re suggesting. I understand having some kind of time limit on screens (because, you want your child to engage in other activities and there’s only so many hours in a day), but why is it one hour? And why does the one hour have to be educational? Why can’t it just be age-appropriate and entertaining? And, what if a child’s screen time was more than one hour per day on weekends and less than one hour per day during the week? I just have so many questions that the available research can’t answer.

“There is not enough scientific research available to warrant evidence-based recommendations on screen time or online activities for children.”

Research on screens and children is all correlational. What that means is after collecting a bunch of data (like screen time in a day, socioeconomic status, amount of parental interaction, maternal or paternal mental health, involvement in extracurricular activities, household income, time spent being physically active, indices of cognitive or physical development, etc.) from a bunch of families, they are able to determine which of these variables are related to one another. For example, they could find that there is a negative relationship between screen time and time spent being physically active. That is, the more screen time a child has, the less time they spend being physically active. People like to focus on the negative outcomes that have been found to be related to screen time. For example, obesity, or academic performance. I’ve never read or heard anyone talk about the studies that found that having some screen time (compared to none at all) is related to better mental health outcomes. The reality is that once you control for confounding variables (other things that could be contributing to the negative outcomes) like household income, interactions with parents, social interactions, bullying, parents mental health, etc., the effects of screen time are almost non-existent. That means it’s not solely the screens causing these negative outcomes. There are many factors contributing. I’m not sure why people want to focus solely on the screen time. Don’t worry about the freakin’ screens. Worry about things like the quality of interactions you have with your child. I want to share the best resource I came across. It is a screen time guide for clinicians and parents from the The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. You can read this document here:

Don’t let screens displace desirable minimum levels of activities like sleep, quality family time, physical activity, and social interaction.

I’ve been reading a lot about screens this past week in order to write this blog post so, screens have really been on my mind. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I’ve been super mindful of when the TV is on. I work from home during the day and I’d usually have the TV on, but this week I have kept it off and instead played the “CHILL” radio station on iTunes. Highly recommended for background music. Because if I play Bieber or Drake I’m not getting anything done. I need music I’ve never heard before (no offence CHILL artists). So far I’m loving the no TV during the day. When Milo gets home from daycare around 4:30pm, usually we would put on Treehouse (children’s TV station). Even if he wasn’t actively watching the TV, it was on nonetheless. This week we’ve kept the TV off and it’s been great. Can’t say any of us miss it. We’ve even been putting our kitchen table to good use and eating dinner together with no distractions. I have noticed a huge increase in the amount of interaction we have with the TV off. Initially, I didn’t think having the TV on really impacted our interactions as a family. It does! I don’t think screens are bad, but I’m happy with only having the TV on when we actively want to watch something. Like, snuggling in bed watching The Wiggles will always be a part of our bedtime routine.

Take home messages from this post and the screen time guideline referenced above:

  • Screen time in childhood is consistently cited in the media as being the cause of obesity, mental health issues, poor academic performance, and behavioural problems even though there is no scientific evidence to back up these claims (correlation does not equal causation).
  • After a comprehensive review of the literature, positive relationships were found between screen time and indicators of obesity, and screen time and depressive symptoms.
  • BUT, the relationship between screen time and child wellbeing is almost non-existent once you control for things like sleep, physical activity, eating habits, bullying, and poverty.
  • The real issue is that screen time displaces other positive activities.
  • There is no evidence that homework done on screens is associated with harms or benefits compared to homework not done on a screen. 
  • Children can be exposed to material or interactions which are inappropriate and/or harmful via screens (as they can be off the screen as well). So, it is important that they are exposed to appropriate content on screens.
  • Don’t stress so much about screens! But, make sure your child spends time socializing, sleeping, eating well, and being physically active.  

XOXO Renee Reina

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  • Mimi
    October 26, 2019

    Everything within limits is not a bad thing. As long as parents don’t use TV and devices in loco parentis, then there should be no problem. Balanced with quality reading time, social activities and just plain play time, judicial use of TV and devices should cause no problems. You don’t want kids to default to the ‘screen’ though. Kids learn to interact with peers and others by example also. They should never be avoiding conversation and socialization by retreating to phones, etc. That would be dysfunctional. Everything ha sa time and place – the little guy will be fine as he’s surrounded by love and attention.

  • Luiza
    May 2, 2020

    Thanks for advocating for real moms causes!!

    I try doing the same – on comments, birth clubs, etc – but it’s hard to discuss with the perfect mothers out there, specially as they are backed up by over the top researches.

    I keep on having dreams of 20 years from now and my baby being the smartest adult, and I can actually compare her to non screen kids haha

    Also – just found you here through TikTok->IG and realized you’re from Toronto! Awesome. How old is your kid? He looks to be very close in age to my daughter (15 months)

    Let me know when you wanna go to a Bad Moms Parade xx

  • Penny
    March 22, 2021

    This is so well written!! As a mom of two pre schoolers and mental health NP I am constantly trying to balance out – are we making a fuss or is there something really in the water. Looking at so many factors / variables and not focusing on just the screens helps. I always think 3Cs- content, context and child.

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Lions and Tigers and Screens, Oh My! Are TVs, Tablets, and Cell Phones Really So Bad?