So what’s the real story about our kids and screen time??

So what’s the real story about our kids and screen time??

Screen time. Two little words – filled with so many ideas, judgments, worries, and advice. If there is a hot topic in the world of parenting, it is the “appropriate” limit for screen time.

Shout out to my good friend, Jennifer H., who shared a BBC article written about worrying less about quantity of your child’s screen time and more about the consequences of that screen time. I often remind parents that there isn’t a magic number of hours or minutes that is “best” for kids. In fact, like most things related to parenting, what is good for one child is not the same for another child.  The article shares a series of questions to assess whether screen time is a problem for your child. Here is what they say:

  • “Is your family’s screen time under control?
  • Does screen use interfere with what your family wants to do?
  • Does screen use interfere with sleep?
  • Are you able to control snacking during screen time?”  (Therrien & Wakefield, 2018)

While I believe these questions are an important starting point, my questions for parents are typically more related to the purpose and content of the screen time. For instance:

  • Is your son playing videogames with a friend at your house for 30-45 minutes as a way to socialize? Then it is probably okay.  If the play goes on for 2-5 hours, then maybe we should encourage another way to interact with his peers.
  • Do you allow tablet time while you cook dinner just to keep the peace during that otherwise hectic time? Great idea! (Consider the alternative… you are stressed because the kids keep arguing with one another and you are constantly yelling at them for the duration of the 30-45 minutes of cooking dinner…. NOT a better alternative to the screen time)
  • Do you allow them to watch a movie during “quiet time” in the afternoon so you can grasp some alone time for an hour or two to catch up on laundry, dishes, or Netflix?  Okay! Again, is the alternative that you are so frustrated and burned out that you are irritable and angry??
  • Are they watching age-appropriate videos about a topic of interest to learn additional ways of engaging with the world? For instance, my 5-year-old loves to watch videos about marble races. After a few weeks of him watching those, I noticed he started tinkering more with his own marble run – becoming more creative with attaching new pieces and other parts of other toys. Granted….he started using a LOT of scotch tape in the process….but hey, he was learning how the world worked – developing lots of good cognitive and independent play skills along the way.

You see. When you consider the alternatives, it doesn’t seem like such a horrible thing. Now, I am not suggesting we allow our kids to play on tablets or computers all day! They NEED to be around other people to learn social skills. They need to be active to release energy from their bodies. But, in moderation, a little screen time is okay.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Always monitor the content. We certainly don’t want our little guys to be exposed to “adult content”.  Our younger kids do not have the cognitive capacity for understanding fiction from non-fiction. So if they are watching adult content (either sex or violence), you are likely to see them start acting out in their own lives. So just be continually checking in about what they are watching. I also recommend you check their search history. Sometimes it can go from benign curiosity and a few clicks later, “butt cheeks” (a common obsession for 5-9 year-old boys) turns into something X-rated.
  2. Be wary of social media. While their are lots of ideas about specific screen time limits, we don’t have a ton of consistent research that says screen time, in appropriate doses will permanently harm your child. On the other hand, we have better evidence for the dangers of social media and cyber bullying. This doesn’t mean social media is banned, but it also means you have to monitor their use. Typically, I recommend waiting for social media until they are in middle or high school (or seem mature enough to be trusted with the freedom of social media use).
  3. Teach your child how to use technology for good. Learn a new language. Learn a new math trick. Watch a cool video on a new craft or science project. Just yesterday, my 9-year-old and I watched a great video on growing crystals for his science fair project. Watching that video got him super excited about doing his science project!  You can find videos on just about anything out there!

And truly, my bigger issue is not with the child’s screen time, but with the PARENT’s screen time. Even as adults, we can get sucked in to our phones, laptops, or favorite show. While we are sucked in, whether we realize it or not, we are modeling a couple of things:

  1. We are ignoring them when we are focused on screens. I am not saying we need to attend to our kids every second of the day. But we have to realize that while we are zoned in to a screen, we are not zoned in to our kids. A good friend of mine, Christina S., always reminds her kids “People are more important than electronics.” I am sure we would all agree with her, so be sure to remind yourself of that if you need! (I know I need reminded myself sometimes!!)
  2. We are modeling a value of screen time. Let me say that another way…. when we watch hours of television at a time, we model for our kids that this behavior is okay.  There is no judgment from me here! I have done my share of binge watching Netflix. What I am hoping to get across is that we cannot get upset with our kids when they watch hours of television or videogames if we model that same thing. Be the example you want for your kids.
  3. Develop and consistently model screen-free time. What times of day will be sacred for technology-free time? Make a time-out box for the screens during a specific time of day. Get out a few board games or puzzles. Turn on dance music and have a dance party. Have them help with dinner. The point here is that this sacred time is focused on family and EVERYONE is committed to being screen free during that time.
  4. Put your phone out of sight when you are having a conversation. Nothing is more distracting and annoying that when you have your phone sitting out during a conversation. The message it portrays to the other person you talking to is that you are just a “ding” away from being second-best. Imagine, you are in the middle of a sentence and the person you are talking to gets a notification on their phone. So mid-sentence, they look down to see who/what it is.  Think about that…how do you feel? Second best? I think that is how most of us feel. So when you are having a conversation, with your child or anyone else, put your phone out of sight to minimize that distraction. Be present with that person so you can let them know what they mean to you!

As I continue to consider how to use technology for the best possibilities in my own life and the lives of my kids, I know these are just constant reminders for all of us. Here’s to finding the balance!


photo cred ( – Bruce Mars)