Tablets for Travel: Life-Saver or Horror Story?

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It may only be the end of February, but we are already planning our summer trip to Europe. I was going back through some of my own travel advice and realized I had never written about a very important topic.

These days, it seems wherever you go, you can see a child with a tablet or smart phone. Frankly, I find it frightening. From everything I have read, they can do some serious damage to young brains.

But I am not here to judge.

I do, however, want to share some crucial advice about using a tablet while traveling with young children.

We have rules in our house about screen time for the boys. One of them is about how much they can watch. Usually no more than an hour in a day, broken up into two or three chunks of 20-30 minutes at a time.

I used to call these rules our “ground rules” … because they stay on the ground when we fly. Cute, huh? 🙂 I figured one day a year, when we have a day flight home from Europe, it can’t hurt to let the kids watch as much as they want. It’s a real life-saver. Right?

Wrong.

When Froggy was 5, he watched for almost the entire 9-hour flight from Amsterdam. It seemed great at the time. He was happily distracted. Mama & Daddy got to rest or read or watch a film of their own!

We weren’t off the plane for 5 minutes when I realized our colossal mistake!! While the boys and I waited for PER to pick up the stroller, I watched in horror as my sweet 5-year-old disintegrated into the worst meltdown he’s ever had. He was crying and whining and carrying on like never before. I don’t remember what started it. But really, it doesn’t matter. Any little thing could have ignited the blowup.

For he was indeed like a ticking time bomb. And WE had created it. By letting him be mesmerized by the addictive images of the screen, it was like he turned into another person. His brain was fried. He had no coping mechanism. Within minutes of leaving the plane, the fuse had reached its limit. The ticking time bomb exploded. 

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That was bad enough, but of course, the situation got worse. Seven planes – count them, SEVEN!! – had landed at the same time. And we were all squished in line to get through immigration. I’ve never seen a line that long. It snaked back and forth for an eternity and spilled over into the corridor. That’s where we entered the line, of course.

Hippo was pretty miserable, too. (Heck, we all were!) So even though I wasn’t supposed to by holding him (back injury left-over from pregnancy), there I was, holding him the entire time we were in line. I think it took us an hour-and-a-half to get through it.

Froggy was such a mess, he couldn’t even stand. So he got in the stroller.

Do you know the kiosks they have these days where you scan your passport and get your picture taken? Well, we FINALLY made it to one of those. PER and Hippo and I all got our pictures taken. But Froggy refused. I felt a panic coming on and snapped at him, “Seriously?! We’re NEVER getting out of here if you don’t do this!!” So PER picked him up to hold him in front of the camera. But Froggy held his arms up in front of his face. “Aaaaaaghh!!!” So while PER held him, I pulled his arms down. I can’t even imagine what that picture looked like!

We laugh about that part now. But it was no laughing matter at the time.

Of course, you could say he was just tired from the long flight. Sure. We were all cranky. But I am convinced that it was much more than that. It was as if he had really lost his mind. Along with the ability to make his body function. He was a miserable, limp noodle.

So… fast forward to a year later.

The next time we flew home from Amsterdam, we took one of our “ground rules” with us. This time, Froggy could only watch for 20-30 minutes at a time. Then he had to take a break for at least that long, preferably longer.

It was like night and day. Sure, we were all a little cranky by the end of our long travel day. But he was able to walk off the plane, up the ramp to immigration, stand in line, and get his picture taken. All with minimal whining. No crying. No drama. He was still my sweet little boy.

We learned our lesson the hard way. So I hope by sharing this story, you will avoid having to endure such a horror scene yourself. Take a lesson from our page. Do yourself – your child – and your child’s brain – a favor. Limit the time he or she spends on devices.

(For tips on what to do when your child is not using the tablet, check out my page of travel activities.)

Gute Reise!

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