Eyes in the Room: Making Sense of Screens with Young Children

My children and I have been on a road trip this summer with no definite end. We’ve already driven about 2000 miles and could easily put another 3000 miles in before we’re done.

This means that we have spent a lot of time in close quarters, which has been fun, but it also means that sometimes, we need a break and there isn’t much space for one. So we disappear into books and silly YouTube shows on our phones and games on the Nintendo DS. The tension here is that the downtime I need can only happen out of the car (because I can’t really zone out while driving), whereas that is when any 2 out of 3 kids are focusing on a screen. The other sits up front and we talk. Since my youngest isn’t able to sit up front, though, this means he is getting a lot of screen time this summer. We watched Aladdin (the animated version) 30 times this summer in the van. Or, rather, the kids in the back watched it, and those of us upfront just got to hear it. Over and over. In the car and, then, in our dreams because it’s impossible to turn off “Arabian Nights” and “Prince Ali” and “A Whole New World” once your brain has heard them that much. Aladdin is one of the few DVDs without a major scratch (though a smaller one has shortened the viewing time by about 15 minutes), which just means we start it over again more frequently.

Anyway, this means that my youngest is getting a LOT of screen time–and then we he is away from it and wants to connect with me, I want to disconnect from everything.

We’re working it out. In the meantime, I’m reminding myself of the central finding from an article titled “Eyes in the Room Trump Eyes on the Screen” from the Journal of Children and Media: “children depend primarily on their live social partners to make sense of their media experiences.” The stuff he watches on a screen–that’s stuff he needs my help processing, even if it’s all appropriate for him. And it’s not just my job as a parent to do that–it’s a joy, if I let it be, because I get to see how his brain makes sense of things. I get to hear the new words he is learning. (This week’s were the verb encounter and the Arabaic word haboob, which means a duststorm.) I get to see him model the stories he tells on the stories he is seeing in films.  I get to see him try out new jokes his favorite YouTubers have shared. I get to hear him singing songs from his favorite movie in the shower.

This much screentime isn’t my first parenting choice, but it’s where we are right now, as I am working full time this summer while solo parenting in the middle of a cross-country trip. But it’s been fun to help this little one make sense of what he is engaging, and it’s a reminder that we don’t passively consume media–we shape how we understand it, and we have a lot of agency in that process.





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