Screen time and toddlers: The best YouTube video ever

Screen time is a phrase that scares many parents. Opinions abound on how much is too much, but each kid is different, and so is each family. And when it comes to allowing screen time, one mom has found the best video ever.

Screenshot from YouTube
This image is from the opening frame of 'Steam Trains Galore!' on YouTube

Consider this my mea culpa to the experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics who suggest that children under 2 are exposed to no screen time whatsoever. 

Months ahead of the 2-year-mark, I have folded; I have pulled out the screen in moments of desperation, extended travel, meetings with editors, and long restaurant waits, and my worst offense? Choo-choo videos.

Let me be clear, this is not going turn into a confession about my toddler watching five hours a day of television and owning his own iPhone, but it is a story about my un-ashamed love for one video on YouTube in particular. 

This video has amassed nearly 3 million views since it was posted in November 2013. It is “SteamTrains Galore!” a 28-minute compilation of, as the site describes, “several steam trains running in the western United States!”

The production costs for this video I am guessing were raised by sifting through cushions on a couch. It looks like it was filmed by a guy with a tripod and a digital camcorder standing next to train tracks around the country. Maybe it was even a collection of videos one guy gathered from a number of other guys standing near train tracks –  which I would think might be a national security issue, but for the sake of my child’s entertainment and my sanity, I am OK with that.

Other parents with kids who love trains know the video as well. Standing around the train table at the local library, I mention the video to other parents and they immediately know what I am talking about. 

You can hear the request for the video from my toddler at different times of the day, especially if he spots my phone. “Choo choo?” he says, hoping that I will hand over the trains. What started with a “Thomas the Tank Engine” movie I downloaded on my iPad for a cross-country flight, deteriorated into searching YouTube for train videos on my phone during a long wait at a restaurant one night.

The fidgeting and a crescendo of toddler hollers melted into 28 minutes of him quietly muttering “choo-choo” and pointing to the screen with one hand, as he fed himself macaroni and cheese (using a fork!) with the other. 

I swallowed hard as I actually enjoyed the chance to swallow my food. But I was nagged by guilt. By handing over the screen, had we entered into the parenting underworld of childhood obesity, limited attention struggles, poor grades, and eventual dereliction before my child could even string together a full sentence?

I’ve seen those families – each one with a device sitting at a table at a restaurant together, seemingly disconnected while sitting across the table from one another. I’ve watched “Wall-E” with the blob people of the future, screens inches away from their noses, and have become short of breath as I imagine the horror of my family becoming those characters, losing the use of our limbs in favor of hovering chaise lounges to take us where we need to go.

Does the decline of human civilization begin with a choo-choo video? Is that where my family is headed?

I have decided no.

I am still a new parent, new enough in many ways to doubt my skills and my decisions, but I am an adult, and I have the ability to lend context to my decisions, as most parents thankfully do.

Outside of the 28 minutes of steam trains at the restaurant and other various screen interactions throughout our days, we read piles of books, play outside, sing and dance, and take walks around the block to stop and explore entirely random patches of dirt. 

My son knows the words “pine cone” and “stick” and “moon” and where to find them in real life, and he understands make-believe, as he lines up his Matchbox cars on the floor and talks to them, creating an imaginary story that I listen in on as he plays happily by himself.

More important than measuring screen time for my son is taking stock of what happens the rest of the time. At the end of the day, if I can remember more about our interactions than the plot of a video, I am sure he will remember that too.

And for your kid, it might not be trains. My girlfriend told me about a video she found on YouTube shot through the fence of a construction site, put to music. To her 2-year-old, it’s worthy of an Oscar. I'm keeping it in mind should trains fade from my son's Most Viewed list.

But I've also learned not to underestimate the power of a steamy choo-choo video.

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