Welcome to another Media Moment! In this post, Lauren Rubenzahl, CMCH’s Program Administrative Manager, reflects on the difficulties that can emerge when trying to offer advice about children’s media outside her professional life, to friends, family, and even strangers. These stories are meant to help create a village square of commiserating and co-celebrating the many ways media intersect with the lives of children. Please comment and even submit your own ‘Moment’ to share with your fellow readers.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
Media Moment: What I learned from the baby at the bar
At a restaurant one night, I saw a young couple with their infant sitting at the restaurant’s bar. The baby’s mother was holding a smartphone inches from the child’s face, playing cartoons. My grandmother turned to me and said, “You have to say something!” My uncle chimed in, “It’s your responsibility, you know,” and if my uncle were prone to winking, he would have done so then.
It can be difficult to tell when the two of them are teasing—it didn’t seem at all appropriate to approach these folks—but part of me agreed with them anyway. I did want to say something, not to be critical but because I suspected that these parents believed that they were doing something helpful by occupying their baby’s attention with something “for kids” in this adult-oriented place. Maybe they didn’t know that a child so young can’t make sense of images on a screen anyway, so even content claiming to be “educational” for babies wouldn’t do much for her. Maybe they didn’t know that cartoons aren’t always innocuous, and that babies can be affected by the scary music or sounds in them. And maybe they didn’t know that taking in the real-life activity of the busy restaurant would be great stimulation for her growing brain.
But these weren’t people I knew, and they certainly hadn’t asked for my advice. What’s more, they may have already had that information, and they may have made a different choice for other compelling reasons. Perhaps they’d had a really hard day with her, and playing cartoons was a way they’d found to keep her happy (or at least quiet) so they could catch their breath for awhile. Perhaps in their cost-benefit analysis, it was more important to have that restaurant time be calm than it was to actively build her brain with human interaction. Still, having worked at CMCH for seven years, I just wanted to make sure that they had the information they needed.
Even with people I know well, though, conversations about this topic can be challenging. Friends with young children say they know they “shouldn’t” have their little ones watch TV but that they just need a break at the end of the day, or they see their child learning so much from it that it can’t be too bad. They give me a sheepish look and offer excuses. I tell them I’m not judging them, that I’m just offering information and that their decisions need to work for them, but their responses make me wonder whether I need a new approach. How can I share information with people, whether I know them or not, without seeming to tell them what they should do with it?
That night at the restaurant, I hadn’t figured out a way, so I didn’t say anything about media to the young parents at the bar. But my grandmother walked over to them and asked them how old their baby was (3 months) and made faces at her while they chatted. For those moments, the screen was set aside; both my grandmother and the parents were interacting with and about the child, and the little girl was engaged in a whole new way.
My grandmother taught me something through that very human act. Just by being friendly, and without any intent to share information, she intuitively found another, more developmentally optimal possibility for keeping the baby happy. She offered something that the parents may have needed as much as they needed information: another way to get their needs met. And I learned that the answer to my question might be simpler than I thought.