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4 Lessons I Learned About Screen Time by Watching My Kid … Watch TV

Despite endless reporting about the death of the 30-second spot, don't buy it. Kids love toy commercials.

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There’s something special about a Saturday morning. Our son bounds into our bedroom, happy that we won’t be rushing to get dressed and out the door, and super-excited to watch TV. I groggily roll out of bed for the time-honored tradition of flipping on what used to be “Saturday morning” cartoons.

My son probably doesn’t appreciate the unlimited choices in media he has compared to the two or three cartoons I watched as a kid. For him, TV started with “Bob the Builder” and “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” As he grew, he graduated to Disney’s “Cars” and “Planes.” Now, he’s into “Transformers,” “Ninjago,” and various superheroes.

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There have been (and will continue to be) lots of conversations about appropriate levels of screen time, but the reality is, kids now live in an on-demand world of limitless media choice. And this offers teachable moments for us as parents. I’ve spent some time studying how he watches television, both live and on-demand, and I’ve come away with four lessons.

1. More choice equals a shorter attention span

Anybody who has ever picked up a cable remote ⏤ child or adult alike ⏤ knows the danger of channel surfing: It can kill hours. It’s no different for a kid. Having nearly limitless media choices, always available — compared to the Saturday-only cartoons of my youth — can lead to endless surfing, which is particularly annoying when he still needs help changing the channel. I try to chat with my son about what he’s looking forward to watching to get him focused. Once something starts, I try to encourage him to watch the whole show.

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2. Parents still need to monitor what kids are watching

It’s easy to park Junior in front of the TV and surf on your phone or do the dishes, literally leaving them to their own devices. However, on more than one occasion my son has been watching a show with unexpected violence or a plotline that upset him. The lesson was clear: While we may occasionally have to use the “digital nanny,” we still need to keep an eye on what he’s watching. Mobile apps and streaming services that allow parents to set age limits can help — but it’s important to remember that age recommendations from the content creators are little more than best guesses. Kids will react differently to what they see.

3. They do watch the commercials

I work in marketing, so I’m not surprised to learn that marketing works, even on kids. Despite countless articles proclaiming the death of the 30-second spot, exposure to TV ads for toys directly impacts a kid’s tendency to want more stuff. I’ve seen it firsthand. In fact, research shows that if you cut TV consumption for seven days, it’s less likely that your kid will ask for a toy that week. This is helpful as we continue to try to encourage our son to be less materialistic.

4. Kids take cues from us

Like many parents, we like to limit screen time. It’s hard, though, to maintain credibility when telling our kids to put down their device while peering over the top of our own. I’m as guilty as the next guy ⏤ checking my work email or the score of the game ⏤ but I’ve found that putting down the phone when I get home helps set the expectation for family time. Our on-demand media world means that Saturday morning cartoons can be watched anytime, anywhere. We try to embrace the fun of quality kids’ programming (in moderation) and, like so many other aspects of parenting, use trial and error to learn works for our family.

Rob Pasquinucci is a PR pro and freelance writer based in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he and his wife are raising two spirited boys. When not working or parenting, Rob enjoys bicycling, reading, or enduring the misery of being a Cleveland sports fan.