I recently read a thread on Twitter, started by someone I follow. I enjoy this persons blog and following them on social media, getting a glimpse into a different life and parenting style than mine. They tweeted about how they couldn’t understand parents who allow their children to have screen time in public. They tweeted a number of times about this, and I won’t link it, because I don’t believe in stirring controversy, but it was apparent that this issue was highly divisive. I do understand their points; so this isn’t about proving anyone wrong, but I wanted to share another side of things in depth.
There were responses ranging from people saying that they used screen time for autistic children, to someone saying that they work in a restaurant and that parents who allow their kids to have technology at the table are big complainers and terrible tippers (wow!). Two pretty big ends of the spectrum, with plenty responses in between both for and against.
I don’t know how I would fit my thoughts on this into 280 characters on Twitter, but I wanted to write something about it, because I do – sometimes, not always, but sometimes – allow my two year old to have screen time in public places, including a restaurant. It really upsets me to think that other parents are sitting there judging me for this tiny snapshot of my life that they see – the time I use screen time as a necessary tool. I hate that I get stereotyped and assumptions are made. I hate thinking that people are branding me a lazy parent, and thinking I don’t have my son’s best interests at heart.
Here is why I’ve let my toddler have my iPad or iPhone in a restaurant
Boredom – Sometimes my son is bored in a restaurant. If it’s not as family friendly a restaurant as I’d hoped, and there is no opportunity to run around or play with anything, if everyone is focusing on their food and the restaurant hasn’t provided colouring utensils or any entertainment, I may offer my son a tablet. We often take it in turns to take him outside to run off steam if he is playing up, but that’s not always viable – there might not be space, it might be raining, we might not be sure when food is coming, we might be with other people and want to make the most of seeing them. Tablets have a wide variety of educational content and I don’t feel like it is that shocking to give my son a colouring in, maths or other educational app or video compared to putting a colouring book in front of him. No one would bat an eye at a child using a colouring book in a restaurant, yet an educational app on a screen causes judgement.
But “children need to be bored to develop” was one of the things said in response to this – yes, they do – but not at the expense of everyone eating in a restaurant. 30 minutes out of a month certainly isn’t going to affect their development!
Avoiding a Meltdown – My son is two. He is not yet verbal. He is behind in speech and language, and may be on the autistic spectrum, we don’t know yet. I know him and his cues, and I know that sometimes an epic sobbing meltdown is coming. One that no amount of distraction will help with. I have had to leave meals in the middle of eating them many times. He struggles, and I don’t believe these are the same as the terrible two tantrums – I believe it is a great deal of frustration with his inability to say any words or express himself or be understood, coupled with potential hearing problems (we’re currently seeing a specialist about this) and sensory issues. Sometimes literally the only thing that will save both him and me from 30-60 minutes of real struggle, is playing his favourite song to him. Is that really so bad?
When you look at a child like mine who looks perfectly normal – or anyone else’s, you don’t know our struggle or what problems we’ve had or where we are at in the development stage, so please don’t judge.
Mental Health and my Relationship with my Husband – After suffering from postnatal depression, anxiety and PTSD, trying to continue running a business and having a variety of struggles such as a close family member dying whilst I already had postnatal depression, my mental health hasn’t been fantastic since becoming a parent. Self care is SO important. Sometimes I want 15 or 30 minutes over a meal just my husband and I talking about our day, and if a tablet gives me that bit of time and genuinely helps me with my mental health, is that really worth judging me over?
Maybe you think I shouldn’t go out to eat then, maybe you think I should get a babysitter, or just spend more time with my husband. We’re both self employed, we both have struggles, between the two of us, we have one family member and she’s not always available. Sometimes we’ve just had a really bad day and want to eat out. Sometimes we need to get out of the house and we need to take our son with us. You don’t know us, so don’t judge us.
Things I strongly disagree with regarding other parents comments about screen time
Don’t take your kids out to restaurants then – I don’t have the luxury of a close family or friends who can babysit. I don’t have a village. It’s just us. I also don’t have a child who is easily left with strangers, even if we could justify the extra cost. I enjoy eating out and it helps me mentally to get out of the house and try new places. I don’t take my son to fancy five star restaurants, but it’s not always possible to find out how family friendly a restaurant is in advance. Sometimes friends or other people want to meet and celebrate at a specific place.
This isn’t an issue where people are complaining about kids ruining other peoples dinner by being out of control. This is an issue about people judging other parents for using screen time – something which helps keep everyone in the restaurant happy. It seems incredibly petty to complain when kids are noisy, and then complain when they’re quiet because you don’t agree with someone else’s parenting! How do we win?
It’s lazy – I spend a ridiculous amount of time researching and talking to other parents about how to be a good mum and how to find things that work for my son and his specific personality and struggles. I’ve specifically spent a lot of time reading studies and looking at screen time and technology use. I’ve even written infographics on safe screen time before to try and help other parents who are looking into this as I do. You don’t know me and to assume that I’ve thrown a phone at him because it was the easy option is extremely rude and insulting. Don’t judge a book by its cover is a good adage here.
It’s bad for them – Actually there is very little to prove that screen time is bad for children in moderate doses, especially if that screen time is interactive or educational. I’ve written about this before and can highly recommend the book The Art of Screen Time which collates information from many many scientific studies into information that parents can easily understand and use to make a decision. Even if there was evidence that screen time is bad for children – for example, in the period just before going to bed – this doesn’t apply to using screen time selectively when needed. To make assumptions that someone gives their children excessive screen time because you see them using it for a small snippet of time in public is very unfair and unnecessary.
It’s not appropriate for a family dinner – This one has come up time and time again. Apparently dinner time is about talking. And I agree! Dinner time is about socialising and eating, and it’s a great time to talk and share problems. In fact I’ve reviewed a children’s book that covers this – Elephants in my Custard! – which encourages families to put the phone away and talk over dinner. I agree and I try to follow this when I can. We have a no phones at dinner rule in place at home at all times. But once again it is judging a parent who is trying to solve a problem in a restaurant and assuming that every night they sit at home eating whilst their kids watch TV or play on tablets, and you don’t know that. So why are you assuming the most negative thing possible?
So this is my long rant – you can see why it didn’t fit on Twitter! What it comes down to with every answer is that parents are judging other parents for something they don’t know and don’t understand. People are making negative assumptions instead of being kind, forgiving and understanding.
To the rude, insulting, negative people on Twitter (and everywhere else for that matter!) I am not sitting here saying that it’s acceptable to give a child a phone or tablet at every meal time, and I have never heard anyone arguing that’s the case either. Don’t judge and complain about someone who has given a child entertainment in a restaurant, or a waiting room, or on public transport when they’re trying to create the best situation for everyone involved – yes, that’s for your benefit as well.
To anyone who simply couldn’t understand and genuinely wanted to know why some parents might hand their child a phone or tablet, I hope that my perspective and honesty about this issue has helped!
If you have an opinion on children using screen time in a public setting, I’d love to hear from you in the comments or on Twitter.