Reframing the Debate About Screen Time
Screen time has become the enemy of parents and educators alike. We’ve heard countless experts tell us that too much screen time is bad for children. It makes them less smart, less creative—the list goes on and on. But is this really true? Is screen time always a bad thing, or are there different types of screen time?
Experts who preach about the evils of screen time have a point. Especially for young children, screen time has been linked to sleep problems, behavior issues, and obesity. When screen time replaces time that could be spent participating in sports, creative endeavors, or family time, it can be extremely harmful. It has become far too easy for parents to sit their children in front of a television or iPad instead of finding meaningful activities for them to participate in.
The content on the screen matters
Not all screen time is created equal. There’s a big difference between watching cartoons on an iPad and reading a book on a Kindle. Even though both involve looking at a screen, one is a mindless activity that requires no critical thinking and the other can help with reading comprehension, vocabulary acquisition, and more.
There are tons of educational apps available for children, too. Kids can practice math skills, learn a new language, create music, and more—all while looking at a screen. It would be naïve to suggest that time spend on one of these educational apps is just as bad as any other kind of screen time. Therefore, when analyzing the effects of screen time, it’s important to consider the content on the screen.
Guidelines are important
Instead of simply advising that parents dramatically reduce or completely eliminate screen time, it may be wiser to suggest guidelines. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests limiting screen time for young children. They now recommend no screen time for children under 18 months and one hour a day for children ages two to five.
For children over six and teenagers, however, the guidelines are looser. Instead of focusing on the amount of time spent (or not spent) in front of a screen, the AAP guidelines recommend focusing on how much time is spent on other activities. Kids between six and eighteen should be spending seven or eight hours a day at school. They should also be completing homework, enjoying some social time, getting an hour a day of physical activity, and getting enough sleep. As long as screen time doesn’t take away from these other activities, there’s no reason to cut it out.
This new approach to screen time is more flexible. For modern families, this is also more realistic. Given that screens are used for so many purposes now, it’s hard to cut them out or reduce screen time to just an hour or two.
It can also be helpful to set aside time where kids put the screens away. Using screens for any purpose right before bed, for example, can interrupt sleep. So creating a no technology before bed rule can be healthy and help limit unnecessary screen time.
Some screen time has benefits
New studies suggest that certain types of screen time can even have benefits. And those studies showing that there are downsides to screen time? Some of those show only minor differences between children who spend more time looking at screens and those who spend less time looking at screens.
The debate over screen time and its possible effects is ongoing. While too much of the wrong kind of screen time can be bad, not all screen time is a bad thing.
How much screen time do you let your children have? Do you think some types of screen time are better than others?