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Screen time shaming: How to be confident when your kid's tech use is questioned

Parents of tiny tech users are no strangers to judgmental comments, but experts say there are confident ways to respond to screen shaming.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

"Shouldn't she play outside more?"

"When I have kids, they won't be allowed to use tablets."

"You should take that screen away, it's bad for his eyes."

Ask any parent who lets their child use technology like tablets or smartphones, and they'll tell you stories of comments — both well-meaning and judgmental — they've received about their kid's screen use.

In an increasingly technological world, it seems everyone — from grandparents to strangers in the grocery store — has an opinion about how much screen time is "too much" for kids.

Cristina Wecker, a mom-of-two from Pennsylvania, recalls a family dinner when someone seated near her made a passive-aggressive comment about her toddler's screen use.

"They said, 'When we have kids, we aren't even going to have a TV in our house — too much TV at such a young age can really mess a kid up,'" Wecker recalled. "I've also had people make comments about how we bought a van with a TV in it — they talk about how their kids don't need electronic devices and can use their imaginations to occupy their time. Some of the comments have been so judgmental, you'd think I was physically harming my kids."

Cristina Wecker's children, Ryleigh, 4, and Dylan, 10 months.
Cristina Wecker's children, Ryleigh, 4, and Dylan, 10 months.Cristina Wecker

Iowa mom Laura Wiebler says she, too, often hears comments about her daughter's screen time.

"I feel guilty when they make comments like that," said Wiebler. "I know the people making the comments mean well, but just because they were not raised in a time with screens, does it mean it's wrong? I don't think long as she's not plopped in front of the TV all of the time and I am conscious about the amount of overall screen time she's having, it's not a problem for me and it shouldn't be a problem for anyone else, either."

Mirna Pedraza says she is often stopped by strangers or chastised by family members about her daughter's screen time, but the Texas mom says she tries to think positively about the interactions and remember that overall, people mean well.

Mirna Pedraza's daughter, Mili, 3, playing a game on her tablet.
Mirna Pedraza's daughter, Mili, 3, playing a game on her tablet.Mirna Pedraza

But maintaining a positive outlook is not always easy.

"In the beginning, it did bother me...because I felt that my mothering skills were under attack," said Pedraza. "I felt that they were telling me I was not a good mom."

As the world becomes deeper and deeper entwined with technology, experts like Ingrid Simone, the executive editor of Toca Magazine and former senior apps editor for Common Sense Media, say screen shaming is on the rise.

"It's something that I have personally experienced," Simone told TODAY Parents, "Parents can be very judgmental of other parents and screen time. But this isn't new — before tablets, it was TV. I think the most important thing is to make sure kids are accessing high-quality content."

Melissa Morgenlander, a researcher and children's curriculum designer, is mom to 10-year-old twins, one of whom has autism. Morgenlander says she began using an iPad several years ago as a way to help her son communicate, and has seen firsthand the benefits of screen time — even in large amounts — when used correctly.

"My son was this kid who wasn't really playing with toys and who sort of ran around the house destroying everything," said Morgenlander. "So when he sat down with an iPad and he was really still and was really into it, I became fascinated with him and how technology was making a difference for him."

Dana Gumm's sons, Ethan, 8, and Davis, 4.
Dana Gumm's sons, Ethan, 8, and Davis, 4.Dana Gumm

Morgenlander says while it's difficult to think of witty responses to screen shaming on the fly, parents can prepare themselves for screen shaming incidents by having an understanding of the benefits of screen time for their specific kids.

And, the New York mom agrees that sometimes, it's best to show those offering unsolicited comments patience and give them the benefit of the doubt.

Here, Morgenlander lists her best tips for combating screen time shaming with confidence.

1. Have patience with the older generation.

"The older generation is probably the one that is going to have stronger opinions about this," said Morgenlander, adding that the majority of her fellow parents tend to be more understanding.

Morgenlander says her own parents had difficulty understanding her son's autism and his need for screen time.

"They're still learning and I give them credit for growing into a more open-minded stage than where they used to be," said Morgenlander, stressing the importance of being patient with those from an earlier generation, encouraging them to ask questions and being honest with them when their comments make cause hurt feelings.

2. Surround yourself with friends who get it.

Morgenlander says most members of her inner circle know of her son's autism and the reasons he spends a lot of time on his iPad. Because of this, she rarely feels judged by her mom friends.

"If I had a close friend who did make judgmental comments about my kids' screen time, I wouldn't be friends with them," said Morgenlander.

3. Know the value in your kids' screen time.

Morgenlander says while her son uses his iPad as a way to calm down or focus, her daughter uses hers for things like watching videos with ideas for art projects she can complete.

"It doesn't always involve constantly staring at the screen," said Morgenlander, who says that understanding the ways screen time benefits your child can be a big help when it comes to not taking comments about screen time personally.

"My son — he's autistic and he's learned social skills from the iPad," said Morgenlander. "He's learned how to identify emotions, how to calm himself with music he likes, and he's even learned how to communicate better through speaking and reading on the iPad."

4. Remember screens are not going anywhere.

"They are going to be a part of our kids' lives for the rest of their lives," said Morgenlander. "At age 10, they aren't toddlers anymore, and I want them to learn how to deal with regulating their screen time now."

5. Embrace the fact that every child is different.

"Screen time is really an individual choice," said Morgenlander, adding that parents should pay attention to the ways each of their children respond to screen time and make adjustments according to their individual needs.

Morgenlander says often, paying attention to what a child likes about a specific app or game can be insightful.

"If he's playing Minecraft all the time," said Morgenlander, "find out why he likes it and what appeals to him and do some hands on activities with him that highlight similar skills."

6. Don't be a hypocrite.

Morgenlander says when parents do implement screen time limits, they must be sure that they, too, are unplugging from their devices.

"Parents should model that same behavior and put their phone down," warned Morgenlander. "I worry when parents set limits for their kids but still have their phones out."

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When it comes to being confident of the quality of the content kids consume on their tablets, Simone recommends checking websites like Common Sense Media or LearningWorks for Kids, which talk about the age appropriateness of apps and the learning potential offered.

Virginia mom-of-two Dana Gumm agrees that while building confidence around kids and screen time can be challenging for parents, it's important.

"I think the reaction to these comments really depends on your confidence as a parent," said Gumm. "I am confident that my children are thriving and doing well, so I don't often feel the need to defend the choices that my husband and I make with their screen time and other parenting decisions."

"We are preparing children for jobs that don't exist yet," Gumm continued. "Jobs that will require creativity, quick problem solving and technology. I see both of my children excelling at these skills due to their enjoyment of video games and technology."