The debate: Screen time for kids in cars

Two parents tackle the issue of permitting kids screen time in cars.

TP-debate-kids-screen-time-cars-april-2015-article

“Yes”

David Leach, Dad of two

We all worry about how technology might harm our kids. But we often freak out about the wrong technologies.

These days, the big playground debate is how too much screen time wrecks kids’ attention spans. And yet, statistically speaking, putting our kids in a motor vehicle is the most dangerous thing we do as parents. We drive so often we forget this fact.

Yes, screens and cars are a bad mix—if the driver’s got the gadget. But that’s not the only thing that can distract. Anything that keeps my attention on the road is good, even if that means letting the kids play a backseat round of “Angry Birds.”

I’d love to pretend I’m the kind of dad who can entertain by pointing out rare bird species from the front seat. But before we’ve left our block, my eight-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter crank up a chorus of “Are we there yet?” and “Daddy, he hit me!” Grimacing into the rear-view mirror or reaching around to break up a fight only add risk to our road trips.

My son tried reading but that kicks his carsickness into high gear. Trust me, getting a Technicolor yawn down the back of your neck while doing 100 kilometres an hour would test even a NASCAR driver’s reflexes.

Anxiety over screentime also mistakes the medium for the message. Sure, our smartphones and tablets can be addictive time-sucks, but we can now fill them with so many good apps that we don’t need to feel like absentee parents if we let our kids swipe and type as we drive.

Plugging them into an iPad loaded with a finger-painting app, an audiobook, or a playlist of songs or videos can mean precious quiet on a hectic commute or winding highway. You can stop and smell the roses when you’ve put the car in park.

Then again, this might all be a moot point in the not-so-distant future, thanks to Google’s expanding fleet of driverless vehicles. With a digital chauffeur, we could one day be safe and social on the road, chatting with our kids in the backseat or even watching a movie together, as our robot overlords drive us all into the sunset.

“No”

Nancy Carr, Mom of two

For many families, March break means a long drive in a cramped car before hitting the slopes or the beach. The question is: how to keep the kids happy, or at least tolerable, on the road? A tablet loaded with games and movies is the answer for lots of families. But not for us.

My husband and I are not perfect parents. Our boys, ages six and four, watch TV, we let them eat fast food, their bedtime varies from day to day, and we don’t freak out if they swear (usually copying me). In fact, there aren’t a lot of hard and fast rules in our house.

But our car is another story.

We don’t let our kids watch screens in the car because we just feel they don’t need to.

Think back to car rides when you were a kid. What did you do? Sing? Nap? Fight? Invent silly games? Count raindrops on the window? That’s what we’d like our kids to do—minus the fighting, of course.

I don’t want to turn around and see my kids, zombie-eyed and headphoned, staring silently at their screens. I don’t want to fight with them about turning the devices off when we finally reach our destination. I don’t want to be disconnected from them.

Last fall we took our first long road trip with the kids: a nine-hour drive to Connecticut. As it approached, we considered breaking our no-screens rule, thinking my husband and I could actually have our own conversations. But we stuck to our guns—we could talk when they slept, we figured—and made a plan. I sealed dollar-store mystery presents in brown paper bags and doled them out on the hour. Between stories and songs, naps and pit stops, they were thrilled to open the little bags containing pads of paper, packs of gum and other trinkets.

Of course, there was fighting. (“His present is better than mine!” and “Why did he get that and I didn’t?”) But there was also singing, talking and knock-knock joking. And no one asked for the iPad.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2015 issue with the headline, “Should kids use screens in cars?” p. 96

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