CNN Parenting

Parents, stop feeling so guilty about TV time

Story highlights

  • Children watching television, more often than not, bring a sense of calm and even joy to the household
  • For younger children, educational shows like "Sesame Street" can improve their cognitive abilities

(CNN)I've never met a parent at ease with the fact that their children watch television. This includes many, many lovely, curious and conscientious parents who allow their equally lovely, curious and conscientious children an American Academy of Pediatrics-approved one to seven hours a week of television and video games.

Their kids love it. And they, the parents, seem to find relief in the break it gives them.
    Still, when the subject of TV comes up, they squirm. They stutter. Their cheeks turn red and their eyebrows cinch as they, so apologetically, explain why they need, really need, to turn on cartoons to cook dinner or catch their breath. In each of their minds lurks the specter of some other parent, be it a tech mogul or a supermom, whose children are living their best lives, blissfully, productively, screen-free.
      Their defense of their children's screen time is not so much a confession but a concession to the better parent they'll never be.
      Why? There's no evidence that children watching some television is a problem, and more often than not, it brings a sense of calm and even joy to the household. Even more strange: Most of us were raised in a time when "screen time" wasn't a concept, and our afternoons were spent engaged in "Saved by the Bell." Few if any of us attribute our neurosis or professional hiccups to this pastime. Why do we assume our children will fare any differently?

      Where TV-related guilt comes from

        For her recently published book "The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life," Anya Kamenetz, an education correspondent at NPR, pored over all the research on TV consumption and children and found that the majority of parents have nothing to worry about.
        "We know that most kids who watch some TV are going to be fine," she said, adding that parents with children with behavioral disorders or who are on the autism spectrum might want to be extra careful.
        The problem isn't television but what television can replace. If sitting in front of the TV gets in the way of physical activity and socializing, then yes, problems can arise. But a cartoon a day is not going to pave the way for weight problems, an inability to connect with others or an SAT disaster down the line.
        Kamenetz explained that the culture shift around screen time is not the result of increased use. "By the numbers, kids are not spending more times with screens than they were in the '80s," she said.
        Instead, the shame and grief stem from the rise of a parenting culture, among better-educated and wealthier parents, that expects moms and dads (OK, mostly moms) to be intensely devoted to their carefully cultivated children. A cartoon represents a breach on both accounts: The parent is being lazy, and the child is not engaging in an activity that will bring them one step closer to an Ivy League education.
        "We feel guilt putting our children in front of a screen because it is a violation of the premise that we are supposed to be constantly educating them," Kamenetz said.

        TV has its benefits

        Kamenetz suggests that parents should watch television with their children as often as possible. This allows the parents to discuss character motivations with their children and, in the process, try to cultivate empathy in them. Also, if parents are struggling to discuss a thorny subject with their children -- perhaps bullying or puberty -- watching a show about it together can open up the conversation.
        "Humans have always used stories to help things make sense ... and deal with emotions," she said.