Good Digital Parenting
Nov. 30, 2018

The Screen Time Debate: Why “How Much?” is the Wrong Question

Founder, CyberWise and Cyber Civics

“What concerns you most when you think about technology and your child?” 

That’s the icebreaker question I typically ask when meeting with parents. Surprisingly, it’s not cyberbullying, sexting, fake news, or online predators that worry parents most. It’s screen time. And everywhere they turn the information they find about this issue is contradictory and confusing. For example:

  • A new study finds that children and teens who spend more time on screens score lower in well-being across 18 of 19 indicators.
  • A study released last year finds little association between screen time and well-being among preschoolers.

Meanwhile, the Family Online Safety Institute’s newly released study discovered that parental concerns surrounding screen time are shifting:

Online content (64%) trumps time spent online (32%) as a concern for parents about their children’s online and technology use, but many parents wish they had more control in each of these areas (56% wish they had more control over content; 42% wish they had more control over time).


Any way you cut it, screen time is important to parents. But clearly it’s time to stop anguishing over “how much” and time to ask these three questions instead. 

What?

Kids are surrounded by screens. No matter how hard parents might try to limit their child’s screen time, kids encounter screens in school, at their friends’ houses, and even at grandma’s. So counting the minutes a child spends in front of a screen is an exercise in futility. So instead, find out what your child is watching (or doing) on these screens and consider the quality of that content. Tech Ethicist David Ryan Polgar calls this the “Kafka vs. Kardashian” question:

Our aspiration is to sit down and read Kafka, but the cold hard reality is that we consume Kardashian. There is nothing wrong with watching a show about the Kardashian clan, just like there is nothing wrong with eating a cookie -- but at the end of the day, you are what you eat. In order to have media diet that is rich in higher quality information we need to be cognizant of what we (along with our kids) are watching.

Of course kids aren't reading Kafka, but the point is that content matters and the only way to evaluate the content your child is consuming is by consuming it with him. So consider co-viewing or co-playing an online game (like Minecraft) with your preteen, or even asking a teenager to show you how to use the story feature on Instagram or Snapchat. Your curiosity about and interest in your child’s online world will give you the opportunity to understand what he finds so intriguing online.

When?

Deciding when certain content is appropriate to a child's age and stage of development is important too. For the very young child, research supports in-person social interactions over screens, as time spent with screens detracts from the face-to-face contact, creative play, hands-on activities, and the physical movement that are the building blocks of healthy brain development. Face-to-face human interactions continue to be important as kids get older too. In a study conducted by researchers at UCLA, sixth-graders who went five days without looking at screens were substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who spent five days with their screens. And that was after only five days.

So if you want to raise a child who is as adept at reading real faces as emoji’s, find out when certain media is suitable for their particular age and stage of development. In addition to online resources to help you do this, this also calls for co-viewing or, as far as possible, pre-viewing content and deciding what is developmentally appropriate for your particular child. 

Why?

This may be the most important question of all. If your sixth grader prefers playing Fortnite to interacting with her friends in real life, ask yourself why. Maybe she’s learning a skill or overcoming a challenge during game play that she’s not being offered elsewhere. Or maybe she’s experiencing stress at school and gaming is providing a nice respite. Or perhaps she finds it easier to connect with her peers via her game than she does in real life. Dig deep into your own memories to remember when you watched a TV show that taught you something new, or found it easier to talk to your peers on the phone rather than face-to-face. The only way you are going to discover why your child is spending time with screens is to talk to her about it.

It’s Gonna Take Time 

Answering these three screen time questions--What, When, Why—is going to take you some time (and may possibly even cut into your own screen time). But, remember, parenting is time-consuming work. No screen time study is going to change that.