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Screen Time in the Car Is Hurting Our Toddlers

Photograph by Twenty20

"Mommy, why can't we have a car like [fill-in-the-name] does? So we can watch movies while you drive?"

I almost slammed on the brakes and snapped my head around, screaming while mid-highway. It was probably the 15th time I was asked that question in a week, and my patience was nearly shattered.

"Because," I repeated again, in my go-to auto-tone, "It's not good for your brains. My job as a mommy is to make sure your brains grow right, and watching movies every time we get in the car makes your brains grow wrong."

Toddler moms, I'm offering my rash (but experienced) perspective to you: Even if you refuse to give up screen time in restaurants (you already know how I feel about that), at least make the car a screen-free zone. Screen time in the car is diminishing our kids', toddlers' and babies' abilities to develop in a healthy way. This isn't "sanctimommy" stuff—this is gritty down-home reality, folks.

My patience for so many parenting conundrums we find ourselves in these days is officially gone. Over and over, online and in real life, we wonder why kids are having more trouble with friends and bullies. We wonder why kids can't pay attention in class. We wonder why kids can't sleep through the night. We wonder why kids don't follow directions and/or respect each other and adults. We wonder why kids are bouncing off the walls in a way that makes us think, "Do we need to get them tested for some kind of attention-deficit disorder?" And we wonder why they don't quite know how to talk to each other (or us) anymore.

Screen time in the car is diminishing our kids' ability to develop in a healthy way.

I believe, based on personal fascination and research, that so many of these issues are exacerbated thanks to the way so many toddlers are being raised nowadays. (Look up clinical professor Dr. Jill Stamm's research on brain development in infants and toddlers. She'll tell you to limit screen time ASAP.)

Toddlers who always have screens thrown in front of them in restaurants, in strollers, at meal time, at a picnic and now in cars do not develop the appropriate social/physical/mental skills. This is not news. The World Health Organization recently cited "gaming disorder" as a mental health condition, and scientists have been warning us about how addictive screen time is for small kids. Experts even say that it's comparable to the effects of cocaine on the brain. I've screamed about this how many times?

At the time of this writing, my daughters are 6 and 7 years old. Since they were babies, I've tossed them in our car and taken them to visit my family in Northern California. Doing the math, that adds up to more than 100 three-hour one-way road trips. No screens, ever. (Not lying.) Did they whine at times? Yes! Was it borderline hell for me sometimes? Yes. But most of the time, it's been fine. We'd talk, listen and sing to music, have quiet time, whatever. I also told them (and still do tell them) to look out the window and notice what's cool. I trained them to road-trip without devices when they were babies, toddlers and now big kids. It's parenting—even if it's not always easy.

Screen time while traveling is a treat for long flights that are over three hours—not a go-to option for that trip to the grocery store.

The upside to all of this effort? I'm now told by friends and strangers, with wide-eyed confusion sometimes, "Your daughters are great conversationalists. What did you do?" (I smile and say, "Thank you.") Don't jump on me for bragging. It's just pure relief that withholding screen time during meals and in our car all these years actually added up to what I'd hoped it would.

Stripping kids of being "bored" and developing coping skills, even in the car, curbs their development in every way. They're missing out on the chance to learn the art of self-regulation (something every kindergarten teacher begs us to teach our kids for classroom success), as well as to be aware and respectful of the world around us. Conditioning toddler minds to always be stimulated, without recovery, is negligent and irresponsible.

So, stop with the movies in the car! Yes, it's possible—and worth it.

I'm living proof.

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