Is Screen Time Really All That Bad?

Photo by Steve Paine via Flickr
Photo by Steve Paine via Flickr

I’ll admit it: my kids’ screen time likely veers far closer to the “spends 8 hours a day with screens” category than to the “2 hours or less” recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

I’ll also admit this: I’m not overly worried about their screen time.

According to a recent hand-wringing New York Times article, I should be. The article suggests that too much time in front of screens — too much time with TV, cell phones, video games, computers and tablets — is rendering our kids antisocial and disrupting their development. The article suggests that parents who are too lazy to parent place screens in front of their children’s faces instead and states that parents “seem to be unaware of the potential harm from so much time spent in the virtual world.”

Whoa. Hold up.

While the article does an exemplary job of expressing older adults’ fears — that today’s youth will be damaged and deficient because of the technology they hold in their hands — it does very little to look at the other side of the coin. The article mentions the potential dangers of too much screen time, but fails to mention any positives.

The prevailing presumption seems to be that screen time is bad. That presumption has dogged screens ever since their creation. Remember the hand-wringing over TV time? Yet the latest research suggests that kids can learn as much from Sesame Street as they can from preschool.

I’m not suggesting that all TV (or all screen time) is equal. Certainly, there’s a difference between Sesame Street and The Bachelorette, and I’m willing to bet that we all can agree on which of the two shows is more appropriate for preschool children.

My point is that grown-ups have long worried about the effects of new technology on children. We are perhaps instinctively wary of new things in our children’s environments. And because these new technologies didn’t exist when we were children — and we turned out great! –– we are quick to assume that the next generation won’t turn out nearly as well if they don’t do what we did.

We are quick to dismiss any advantages that might come with the new technology as unnecessary, and much, much quicker to see evidence of damage than evidence of good.

Yet is screen time really all that bad for my boys?

Is the time they spend watching YouTube videos and Vines more or less of a waste than the time my brothers and I spent watching Reading Rainbow and The Price Is Right during our summer vacations?

Is the time my 9-year-old spends in Minecraft really any worse for him than the hours my brother Greg devoted to video games?

Is the time they spend texting and Instagramming and Snapchatting their friends any better, worse or different than the hours I spent on the phone (tying up the family phone line!) with my friends?

I’d argue that it’s not as different as the fear-mongers would have you believe. 

Yes, my kids (and yours) have easier access to porn than ever before. Yes, they can communicate privately — far from the prying eyes and ears of parents and adults — easier than ever before, perhaps increasing the possibility of bullying and inappropriate behavior. And yes: screens cannot and should not become our children’s whole lives. Children can and should be encouraged to play outside, to explore and experience nature and to pretend and imagine.

Yes, we may sometimes need to nudge our kids away from screens and into the outside world. One way we can do that is by making the outside world as interesting and challenging as possible. Another way we can do it is by putting down our own screens.

But we can also resist the urge to demonize screens. Instead of scowling when you see your kids hunched over their devices or in front of a screen, challenge yourself to view the activity from your child’s eyes.

Ask yourself – and your child—what he enjoys about the activity. Ask yourself – and your child – what he’s learning. You might be surprised to find out that it’s not nearly as bad as you fear.

A few years ago, my then-8-year-old son and his younger brother began humming along to The Nutcracker March at Christmas time.

“How do you know that song?” I asked, pausing the CD to see if the boys really knew the music.

The boys kept humming, accurately.

My then-8-year-old grinned at me.

“TV, Mom! Tom and Jerry!”

He paused. Grinned again. Then delivered the line I’ve heard so, so many times since:

“Who says you can’t learn anything from TV?”

Who says, indeed!

The Building Boys Bulletin

The Building Boys Bulletin Newsletter gives you the facts, encouragement, and inspiration you need to help boys thrive. Written by Jennifer L.W. Fink, mom of four sons and author of Building Boys: Raising Great Guys in a World That Misunderstands Males, Building Boys Bulletin includes:

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“I learned a lot about helping boys thrive over the past 20+ years — most of it the hard way! I’m eager to share what I’ve learned to make your path a little easier.”   – Jennifer

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4 Responses

  1. I appreciate your posts and opinions, but I have to respectfully disagree with you on this one. I think we can all agree that there are some shows that are better than others for kids to watch when they are on a screen. But, you are not going to convince me that 8 hours (EIGHT HOURS???!!) of even GOOD shows/games/etc. are healthy for ANY BOY (or girl). That’s 1/3 of their entire day! That’s many minutes or even hours they could be outside playing (by themselves, with friends), in nature, with one’s family. Plus my guess if as an adult one was on the phone for 8 hours each day, we would not think it was good for one’s health, either.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Christine. Your post caused me to pause and ponder. 8 hours? Is that really an accurate reflection of the time my boys spend in front of screens? I realized that I don’t the exact answer, so I’ve revised the opening of the article to state that they (my boys) likely veer closer to the 8 hrs. per day than the AAP recommended 2 hours or less.

      More important than the amount of time spend online and in front of screen, in my opinion, is what else kids do with their time. Because I agree with you — kids need to be outside, they need to play (both alone and with friends) and they need to interact with family. I’m comfortable with the amount of screen time my boys get because I see that they also spend time with friends, playing sports, fishing, camping and with family. If their lives ever shrunk down to screens and screen-based entertainment and interaction only, then yes, I would be concerned and would do things differently.

      Re your last statement about 8 hours a day on the phone not being good for adults…I realized that it is very, very likely that I spend 8 hrs. a day (or more) in front of screens. My work is computer-based. I also spend significant amounts of time online reading news, researching and keeping up with friends. I have to make an effort too, to spend time in the “real world,” but I don’t think there’s any magic number that works for everyone.

  2. I don’t have to ask my boys why they like their screens. All day long, I’m being shown neat videos, told about that Creepy Pasta my fifteen year old just read and why he thought it was so well done and effective, listening to the 9 and 10 year olds discuss the latest sabotage on Cutthroat Kitchen and how they would have handled it…

    They could be spending eight hours a day using an online curriculum and that would be “good” screen time, but if they’re in control of their own choices, it’s not. I don’t understand that at all.

    As for spending eight hours on the phone…is it that much different than if you spend eight hours talking to someone face to face?

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