Why using your iPad as a babysitter is a feminist issue
Shaming mothers for relying on a phone or tablet just shows women still do three times the amount of childcare than men
Published 02/06/2016 | 02:30
The amount of screen time you allow your children has become shorthand for how bad a parent you are - the more you allow, the worse off your kids are. Cross university right off the list, if you're subjecting your children to the electronic babysitter for more than, say, five minutes a week.
And it's not just the children's screen time, of course - though debates so often begin and end there; it's yours, as Ruby Wax, who says she missed her children growing up through being on her phone too much, has pointed out.
Are you glued to your iPhone while spending "quality time" with your kids? Stack up the demerits! The dictionary illustration (or perhaps the Wikipedia image) of bad parenting these days would be a scene in which you, your spouse, and all your kids are sitting at the dinner table, texting. With the TV on in the background. And you're all drinking wine? Call social services immediately!
Shaming parents over how much time they allow their child in front of a screen is a popular sport - I've done it, you've done it; even people who say they don't want to discuss it, go on to do just that. They expound, in detail, on how much they allow, and why that's the Right Thing to do; and they just don't want to hear what you think.
Actress Salma Hayek has just done it, too. In an interview, the 49-year-old actress, who has a daughter, Valentina, and three stepchildren, argues that parents must avoid "entertaining them with a screen" and force children to engage in human connections: "especially if you are an older mum like me".
In the arena of parental judgement, screen time isn't the ice hockey or baseball of shaming - it's the football: everyone has a stake; everyone cares. And this despite the fact that scientific data on exactly how bad - or not - screens are for children remain inconclusive.
On the one hand, extended time in front of a screen probably disrupts sleep (I know that keeping my iPhone/alarm/diary/lifeline on the side of my bed impacts mine enormously) and may limit a child's ability to recognise emotions.
On the other hand, if TV-watching or Instagram-curating or 'Minecraft'-playing is taking the place of exercise, screen time is probably driving up your child's blood pressure. Who knows what to believe?
Official guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics is that - for children under the age of two - screens are of no good use (though the academy is currently reviewing this position) and children over the age of two can have up to two hours each day of 'entertainment' screen time.
More recent and nuanced analyses of data tend to differentiate between different types of screen time. As Steven Gortmaker, a professor of health sociology at Harvard who has been researching the subject for the past few decades, noted last year, parents do not need "to get rid of the technology but to lower the dose and set limits."
But if scientists are exploring the idea that screen time may not actually be, by definition, bad, then popular perception has been slower to follow. Shaming parents for relying on the electronic babysitter is a pretty standard pastime.
Recently, technology writer Alexandra Samuel argued that this screen time shaming has its roots in anti-feminist bias.
Like a mistrust of formula feeding and historic scepticism over other modern conveniences (think: washing machines, hoovers, non-iron cotton shirts, ready meals) that liberated women from the drudgery of domestic life, she argues, the rejection of screen time for children is actually a criticism of mothers.
They're providing most of the childcare for kids, and we are shaming them for "adopting labour or sanity-saving innovations".
Samuel argues that diverting children with screens is a necessity for women - and that people like Steve Jobs (or me) who limit the technology that their children use, would reconsider if they "actually spent every day at home with [their children]" instead of working outside of the home.
While I agree with Samuel that this shaming is a feminist issue, because women still - and unjustly, and to everyone's detriment - provide the vast majority of childcare, ironically, it's for the very sexist and un-feminist content of so much of the entertainment targeted at kids that I seriously limit screen time.
I don't want my daughter to think that, as a girl, she's a candidate only for My Little Pony, Peppa Pig, or Dora the Explorer. She has to have a better role model than 'Frozen's' Elsa. Why should my son, by virtue of his penis and really nothing else, be confined to 'Thomas the Tank Engine'? And guns, muscles, cars and action?
And why, if my children are exposed to the unholy power of the marketers behind these campaigns, should I be forced to go along with all of the commercialisation?
The unfathomably poor and sexist quality of children's programming is why I avoid TV and video games. (And that's just the main programming; the adverts are even worse when it comes to gender stereotyping for children, as the brilliant gender equality campaigning group Let Toys Be Toys has shown).
As with every feminist debate before - and since - Virginia Woolf's call for a room of one's own, there is also a class element here. Elissa Strauss argues rightly that "it is far easier to have children who never watch television if you're rich enough to afford the help that ensures that you never need to rely on an electronic babysitter."
But if Samuel is right to argue that "our anxiety about making mothers' work easier is rooted in our profound reservations about liberating women from the demands of the home," I can't agree with her conclusion that a screen bonanza is the feminist answer.
If a fairer and more equal society involves different people coming together in public, then surely hooking a child up to a device - thereby excluding them - in a restaurant is counter-productive.
"Armed with that digital security blanket," says Samuel, "the world of un-disruptable public spaces once again becomes accessible to mothers and children, presenting the horrifying possibility that a table of business dudes may actually have to endure the nearby presence of small humans during their power lunch."
If you have a child hooked up to a film that she's seen a million times already, completely closed off from this outside world that Samuel wants her mother to engage with, isn't that a mixed message? Why can't the child just be expected to interact and be interesting?
Everyone belongs in public spaces, and needs to develop reasonable behaviour for those spaces - kids, too.
Is screen shaming a feminist issue? Yes. Because women still do three times the amount of childcare that men do.
But I retain my scepticism about screens. A little bit, monitored, is fine - but the real solution to this problem is to get fathers more involved in childcare. Women shouldn't be blamed for this. But that doesn't mean that screens at dinner - or in bed - or in lieu of human interaction or exercise - are okay.
Do we have to exclude children from normal society in order to allow women to join public life? It seems to me like a disappointing return to having children who are seen and not heard.
Instead, let's have higher expectations of everyone; that way, we all win. © Daily Telegraph