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Is Screen Time Really the Worst Thing For Kids?

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The Muppet Show’s “Mahna Mahna” skit—in which two pink bovine-esque Muppets sing “do doooo, do do do” over and over again as a fuzzy and raffish Muppet with a gravelly voice interrupts them—has been viewed over 123 million times on YouTube. During our obsessive phase, my three-year-old daughter Ella and I likely contribute one million of those views. It makes me laugh; it makes her laugh. It is surely not crap—Jim Henson was charming, quirky, eccentric in the best of ways, and so are his creations—but it is arguably closer to silly than enriching on the quality-control spectrum.

Every parenting generation has its own flavor of hysteria, and mine revolves around a single trigger: screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers specific guidelines around how much viewing is recommended (none for children under 18 months, though video chatting is OK, and no more than an hour a day for kids 2-5), but it’s less clear about what kids should watch, suggesting only that parents should choose “high-quality programming.”

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In an era of heightened parental anxiety, when every minute is presented as an opportunity for education, and every lost hour of potential learning due to last year’s school closures a minor tragedy, I wanted to truly understand: just what constitutes high-quality kids’ programming?

Baby, Unplugged: One Mother’s Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age

In my research for Baby Unplugged, my book about the intersection of parenting and technology, I spoke with countless experts in the space, and implicit in all of our conversations was the notion that quality generally meant educational. Preschool kids, when watching television, should be watching programming that imparts preschool-readiness skills, whether to identify shapes or strengthen self-control or, simply, be a kind person.

But what about the value of giggling over a bopping bovine?

“It’s really taking the piss on everything!” Helle Strandgaard Jensen says with a cackle when I reach her over the phone in Denmark, where she’s a children’s media historian at Aarhus University. “It’s hilarious!”

She’s not talking about the Muppets but a Danish show she likes to watch with her seven-year-old, called Onkel Reje, or Uncle Shrimp, which, on the spectrum from academic to Muppet, is much closer to Muppet. She, for one, is a huge proponent of giggling and silliness when it comes to assessing what her kid should watch.

To understand this refreshing new perspective more intimately, I search for an Onkel Reje episode and finally find one online. It begins with the eponymous character—a bearded, bespectacled man with the eyes of someone who’s just downed his fourth double espresso—talking about a “fire glove” he’s picked up at the hardware store. The pinky, when raised, throws up a flame like a match, the ring finger acts more like a lighter, the middle like a candle, and the index like a sparkler. And the thumb?

“Il flammekaster!” he crows, nearly singeing an eyebrow. A flamethrower! I briefly entertain the looks I’ll get at the playground if Ella pretends to use a flammekaster in the sand pit.

In the next sequence, Shrimp watches a blind man fall off a tightrope down to the concrete below, holding nothing but an umbrella as he sails on down. “What’s the lesson you can learn?” he asks his audience. “Be a taxi driver instead!”

It strikes me that this is an attitude of someone who lives in a socialist society with a built-in support system.

The shows her son watches, Jensen tells me, are largely those she also wants to watch with him, and unlike other academics I’ve spoken to in the space, she doesn’t couch this with an acknowledgement that it might be an oppressive expectation, particularly if parents are using screen time as a babysitter.

It strikes me that this is an attitude of someone who lives in a socialist society with a built-in social support system. There’s less need to park your kids in front of Nanny Television if you’ve worked a six-hour-a-day job, biked to a lunch of salted herring with your colleagues, and headed to a fully subsidized doctor visit while your offspring runs around in the forest learning how to be a civilized human under the watch of trained, well-paid professionals. A world to strive toward.

“My son is seven, and he’s just starting to learn how to read,” she tells me. “There’s a clear tradition here of having children focus on interacting with other children.” I can’t very well open the door and let Ella run wild on West 67th Street, but the point is taken: the ABCs will come. While she admits that Scandinavians can get just as caught up in the hysteria of screen time as Americans—“Parents at my school ask me to tell them things like ‘22 and a half minutes after the full moon, that’s the perfect time for watching,’” she says—she underscores that Scandinavian children’s programming plays a very different role in society than it does in the States.

“For starters,” she tells me, “it teaches children to stand up to adults.”

Take Pippi Longstocking. The nine-year-old Swedish heroine lives in a house not with her parents but with her horse and Mr. Nilsson, a monkey. And she refuses to go to school altogether.

Jensen has written about Sesame Street for various publications. To say that she’s not a fan is putting it mildly. When we speak, she’s in the midst of writing a book about Sesame Street during the 1970s, when it started to expand around the globe.

“My biggest issue is the idea that the needs of American society were universal needs,” she says. “It’s just a very narrow view, that numbers and letters are something all preschoolers need.” She pauses, then mentions another academic who believes Sesame Street’s creators are cultural imperialists. She takes a less extreme view. “I see them as white American do-gooders who are blinded by a mission they felt and believed.”

When I posit that preschool programming could go one of two ways—preparing kids either for school, à la Sesame Street, or for a life rich with giggles over silly things with Mom or Dad—Jensen quickly counters me.

“I think you’re missing a third way,” she says. “You could have a civic, social education. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Greta Thunberg”—the teenage environmental activist who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize—“is from Scandinavia.” Lest I forget I am deep in the world of academia, the conversation quickly moves to Bildung, a German philosophical idea that, as I find with many German philosophical ideas, is intimidating, all-encompassing, and impossible to distill into a sentence. The concept has to do with forming intelligence and character and developing a sense of selfhood while being critical about your surroundings. Presumably, one formative factor in Thunberg’s life has been her consumption of just this type of Bildung.

When I press Jensen to recommend a single academic show for preschoolers, she pauses, then eventually offers up a National Geographic–esque program where you have to identify an animal on the basis of the size, shape, and color of its turd. So there’s that.

Sophie Brickman is the author of Baby, Unplugged (HarperCollins), from which this is excerpted.

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