Good Digital Parenting
Blog | July 5, 2018

Screen Time vs Screen Use: What to Consider When Setting Hard Limits on Tech Use

Intern, Family Online Safety Institute

There are many different routes parents can take when instituting limits on children’s technology use. Many of these choices revolve around the idea of time; parents often consider imposing restrictions on their kids’ total screen time. However, when parents set limits on device use, it is helpful to pay attention not only to how much time their children spend on their devices, but what they are using their screen time towards--otherwise known as the notion of screen use.

As adults, many of us spend the majority of our waking hours on our computers; at our jobs, we sit in front of a screen for hours on end, and at home, we check our emails and also enjoy some recreational use. Therefore, the total screen time builds up, but many of those hours we deem as necessary or at least productive for our lives. This highlights the differences between screen time and screen use; screen time on its own is not always an accurate measure of the way we interact with technology.

Similarly with children, screen time and screen use measure different aspects of online activities. While children often do not have jobs, their technology use is not always fun and games, either. In today’s day and age, more and more school-related activities require technology use at home. Typing assignments, completing online problem sets, and researching for projects are just a few examples of activities that children use technology outside of school to complete. Usually, parents are not targeting these academic activities when they propose constructing limits on children’s screen time.

Therefore, parents should consider creating restrictions based on the breakdown of their child’s total screen time through evaluating screen use, compared to setting hard limits on screen time overall. To understand their screen use, determine how your child is using their computer and phone. While some screens, like television or game consoles, can often easily be restricted due to their nearly-exclusive use for recreation, other screens such as phones and computers serve both academic and recreational purposes. As a result, it can be tricky to impose computer restrictions without knowing how much of their time goes to certain types of activities. 

Qualifying a child’s screen time in order to set boundaries requires answering a number of questions. For example, how much of their total computer time is going towards homework and academic tasks, compared to how much of their online time is devoted towards gaming, video streaming, and other non-educational purposes? Perhaps more importantly, are the academic and recreational uses being kept separate, or is your child starting on his or her homework, while also having their favorite online game pulled up in a separate window? Or is your child working on homework with their phone also nearby, allowing frequent social media checks? Engaging in open conversations and sitting down with your child while they are using their devices are necessary steps in answering these questions. With this information, you can target their screen time that is not necessarily beneficial rather than the screen time that is academic. 

Instituting limits on technology use is important. Keeping in mind how your child is using their screens, not just for how long, will make restrictions more meaningful and effective in limiting the kinds of behaviors you want to restrict. Just as important as setting the limits is talking with your child about why they exist. This discussion can not only encourage them to adhere to the boundaries and prevent excessive screen use, but it will teach them the importance of continuing to set their own responsible boundaries in the future.