When I first became a mother, I was adamantly against screens. Still pregnant, I had vowed – among other unattainable goals – to prevent my child’s exposure to ipads, iphones, and television. I held fast to this goal when Cooper was a baby, and thought others should, too.
Once, a mom friend who was having a hard time – going through a break-up with her partner – admitted to me that when her own son fussed and squirmed during diaper changes, she handed him her iphone so she didn’t have to fight him through it. This woman was clearly exhausted. She was on her way to becoming a single mother, and simply doing the best she could to get through the day. Still, in my head I judged her smugly and harshly, basking in my own fleeting moment of mom-superiority.
The first time Cooper watched a television show, he was one and a half years old. We needed to move a mattress from one room to another, but Cooper was repetitively running at full speed and crashing into the mattress, then crumpling to the ground in tears. Finally, exasperated, I put him in a high chair, in front of Sesame Street. For the first waking half hour of his life, he stopped moving and was entirely quiet and focused. We moved the mattress. I felt guilt, and restated my pregnancy vow.
But a little before Cooper turned two, I began a full-time job that required me to be professionally presentable and out of the house at the same time as my husband. So we allowed one hour of screen time to enable us both to get ready. In the years that followed, one hour of screen time was my maximum – with the only exceptions being plane rides and long car trips – and it came with shame.
The beginning of the pandemic is what broke me. I spent each day of quarantine hypervigilant for the safety of the boys, and simultaneously steeling myself against the constant manic screaming and activity. Cooper refused to move through the activities of the day according to the laminated visual chart I had made, even though it was the exact same system he’d followed without complaint at his then shuttered preschool. After four months my body was giving out.
Cooper’s noise, climbing on couches, dumping of drawers, and all the collateral damage of his overactive and anxious mind, had overwhelmed me. By then I had internalized that my son had PDA, and I would love to say that is what prompted me to employ a different screen time strategy. But the truth is I just gave up.
The first few weeks, he positioned himself in the exact same spot on the couch in the living room, rotating between tablets and the television, with breaks to check in with me and the baby, or to join us outside for a sensory half an hour on the trampoline or swings before returning to his headquarters on the couch. He averaged 7-8 hours there each day, always on a screen. My shame became defeat.
And then one morning, after a few weeks of the new routine, I found Cooper on the couch with an ipad, surrounded by oil pastels and printer paper covered in colorful images. He was regulated and focused, studying a paused screen of a “Transformers” show. “Mama, I’m drawing robots.” I watched him draw one, then unpause for a minute, pause, and draw another.
Excitement surged inside of me - my son was drawing! He had not voluntarily drawn, colored or written a single thing for years, not since he was about two and a half, and certainly not without adult support. When we began daily occupational therapy before our move to Michigan, he needed 45 minutes of intense sensory input on swings and crash pads, just to sit at a small table, with me on one side and the OT on the other, to practice writing his name or tracing action figures from a coloring book. I remember him resisting, fidgeting, running from the table, his body in flight.
For the next month he continued copying images, and then he began inventing his own. I quickly filled three large binders with drawings of robots and superheroes. He started inviting me in, to draw together the simple symbols for his superheroes, while the baby napped upstairs. Each day it seemed his imagination was expanding, or maybe it had just found the safety of a tether.
After about two months of this, something shifted. It was as if he reached a moment of saturation and realization that yes, he truly was in control of when and where he watched his screens. For the first times ever, he began choosing to turn them off. Sometimes it would be in response to a non-mandatory invitation - William and I are going outside to play in the sandbox, and you are welcome to come or you can stay on the couch - and sometimes just to ask me to play, even if what we would play was still undetermined.
Now, eight months later, he still averages about five hours a day. But not only in a completely-zoned-out, need-to-shut-out-the-world type of way. Cooper also uses screens as a tool. He regulates with them on car rides to occupational therapy, and we bring them to him at the end of difficult meltdowns, along with his pacifiers, his blanket, and his stuffed dog. He uses them to eat – to distract himself to make it easier to eat his food, and to tolerate the smells of others’ food without gagging or vomiting.
He has also started to teach himself science through Youtube, and begun asking me to help him write and spell things in the Google search engine. He studies other children playing with Legos and Ben-10 toys, and I’ve seen him emulate their facial expressions and repeat their phrases with his new friends at kindergarten, where he masks to interact socially.
There are still days, when he is at the end of a week, and needs to detox and reduce the accumulated anxiety of the educational and social demands, that he watches screens much of the day. And there are days when he barely watches them at all. I’ve come to terms with this, and am fine with both.
That doesn’t mean I am “pro” screens in general. It means I respect the individual differences of children and believe in letting them use the tools they need to learn and self-regulate. I no longer care “what the research says” on screens because I know that the studies were conducted primarily, if not completely, with neurotypical children. I know that they are quantitative studies, using a large-N sample (lots of kids), which provides me only the findings on average. But my son is an outlier. His brain even works differently from many kids with ASD. It’s outside the bell curve, and so the findings from the middle of that curve, just don’t really apply.
In the moments when I reflect on how my attitude towards screens has changed, I sometimes think about that about-to-be-single-mom friend giving her 10-month-old an iphone for diaper changes. We are not in touch, but I want to say to her – and to my old self – I’m sorry I judged you. I was so utterly wrong.
(Drawings by Cooper while in front of a screen, 5.5 years old, July 2020)