After years of carefully curating screen time for our children, when I uncut the cord a couple months ago and switched back to cable, I got lazy. Instead of manually selecting streaming programs for my 5-year-old twins to watch, I found myself switching on Disney, Jr. or Sprout and just letting them watch commercial television for an hour after preschool each day.
Unfortunately, that strategy came home to roost over the weekend when my daughter began working commercial jingles into conversations, which is basically my wife’s worst nightmare. At lunch, for instance, my daughter would ask, “Dad! Can we got to Chuck E. Cheese! It has games and tickets, and we can celebrate 40 years of fun!” The girls had heretofore never heard of Chuck E. Cheese, and that was by design. Likewise, over the weekend when my daughter asked if we could go to the ocean, she worked in a famous commercial jingle. “♫Oceanwide is on your side♫.” They’d even began repeating a goddamn Oxiclean commercial. “Got stains, Dad! Oxiclean Max Force. Get the tough stains out!”
It wasn’t just the commercials, either. I don’t know what the hell they are showing on Disney Jr., but last week, one of my daughters could be heard calling her sister “Basic.” They are 5! How do they even know what “Basic” means?
Clearly, the unfettered access to Disney, Jr. had backfired, and I needed another option, preferably one that didn’t require that I demand of my children to turn the television off after their screentime was over, because no matter how much warning they have, it always ends in tears and emotional pleas. “One more minute, Dad! Can we just finish this show, Dad!” Because I am easily manipulated, and because “one more minute” or “one more show” often means 20 more minutes of silence, I am quick to relent to the pressure.
iPads are options for some parents, but those things are expensive, and no matter what kind of tank-like case you have surrounding it, kids will find a way to break those things. We trust the 9-year-old with an iPad mini, which he uses to mainline Doctor Who episodes (he made a Tom Baker reference in conversation the other day that felt like a sweet, sweet parenting victory), but we’ve gone through two iPads in the last 5 years, neither of which we spent much time on before they gave up the ghost. Likewise, iPhones are a terrible idea: Not only will your young children find a way to damage them, but 1) when you get them back, they’ll be streaked and smudged with toddler fingerprints (syrup, chocolate, apple sauce, granola stickiness), and 2) they’ll sneak into your goddamn bedrooms at 5 a.m. and steal your phone and you’ll wake up an hour late because they hid in a closet with your phone and stopped the alarm and never told you.
Anyway, last week, I finally found the perfect solution, one that some of you may already be aware of, but for others, it will change your life. It’s called Amazon FreeTime. Over Christmas, we bought the girls Amazon Kindle Fires because they were only $30 at the time, and because we thought they’d be great for long car rides. They’d get their own individual screen experiences, and wouldn’t spend half the car ride arguing over what to watch.
They worked fine, but still required full-time management of a parent in the front seat to switch programs or games, because the Fire comes preloaded with about 50 apps and no matter how many times you tell a child to JUST WATCH THE MOVIE AND DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING ELSE they’ll invariably end up stuck on one of dozens of worthless apps. They were kind of a pain in the ass, so unless we were on a car trip, they usually remained hidden away in a closet.
FreeTime, on the other hand, changed everything. It is the perfect app. It changes your Amazon Fire to a kid-friendly tablet that only houses the games, TV shows, and books that you approve.
It changes this:
You can manually choose what movies, TV shows, or books that you want, or you can allow it to only let your children watch those games and shows that are appropriate for their age. It’s very kid friendly, and very intuitive to even the youngest children, so you’re able to hand the tablet over to your kid and not hear from her again until the end of screentime.
But here’s the best part, and the thing I’ve always wanted: You can set a daily time limit. You can allot however much time you’d like (an hour on weekdays and 90 minutes on the weekends, for instance) and when that time is up, it’s over. The tablet shuts down. The parents don’t have to take anything away. There are no arguments or fights. It’s just done, and your kids can return to what they do best: Ask, “What can I do now, Dad?” repeatedly until you lose your goddamn mind. You can also set it so that it can only be accessed during certain hours of the day, so if 6:30 rolls around, and they’re still on: Bam. It goes down. “Sorry, sweetie. There’s nothing I can do about it! The Amazon goblins have shut it down for the day.”
FreeTime is not free (I think it’s $2.99 a month), but it’s worth it. If you have Amazon Prime, the kids can watch whatever is available on Amazon (and there is plenty) all sorted and limited by age. There’s also tons of free kids books and games (many of them are even educational!). Plus, if you buy movies on Amazon, all those are available to them on the app, as well. You can also download as much as your storage space allows for offline viewing while the kids are in the car.
It may not sound like much, but to parents with small children, it’s a goddamn miracle. An affordable, convenient and hassle-free miracle.